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521: How to Generate 100 Ideas in 10 Minutes with Dr. Roger Firestien

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Dr. Roger Firestien says: "The creativity comes in the stretch, the innovation comes in the stretch."

Dr. Roger Firestien shares his simple method for generating more original ideas.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The four guidelines for generating ideas
  2. Why silly warm ups seriously help brainstorming
  3. The magic number for creative ideas

About Roger:

Dr. Roger Firestien has taught more people to lead the creative process than anyone else in the world.

By applying Roger’s work in creativity:

  • Clorox solved a 77-year-old problem in 15 minutes;
  • General Motors came up with a $1.50 solution that saved the company $50,000 a week;
  • Mead Paper developed a world-class line of products and saved $500,000 a year;

Called “The Gold Standard” of creativity training by his clients, he has presented programs in creativity

to over 600 organizations nationally and internationally.

Roger’s latest book Create in a Flash: A Leader’s Recipe for Breakthrough Innovation provides techniques

to grow personal and team capacity for tackling tough challenges and recession proofing any business.

Thank you Sponsors!

  • Blinkist. Learn more, faster with book summaries you can read or listen to in 15 minutes at blinkist.com/awesome
  • Alitu. Coupon code: awesomejob

Dr. Roger Firestien Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Roger, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Roger Firestien
My pleasure. I’m happy to be with you today.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m intrigued, so we’re going to talk about thinking and creativity. And I understand that when you like to think, one of your favorite things to do is drive tractors. What’s the story here?

Roger Firestien
I grew up in a farm in northern Colorado, and one of the beautiful things about being a part of my family is that my father didn’t say I had to be a farmer, right? And I got very interested in music, and the interest in music led to my interest in creativity. So, when I moved out to Buffalo, New York in 1978 to study creativity at the International Center for Studies in Creativity, I really never wanted to set foot on a farm again.

And a number of years ago, I went through some challenging times, and I ran into a fellow named Philip Keppler who owns a cattle ranch near Medina, New York which is about 40 miles northeast of Buffalo, where he grazes about 400 cattle. And so, Phil and I became friends, and I started to just go out to the farm to do what I call farm therapy. And what farm therapy is, is you go and you do stuff but you don’t have to make a decision on what you’re doing. My friend Phil says, “Let’s go move those bales up the north,” and we do it. my friend Phil says, “Let’s go move that tractor over there,” and we do it. My friend Phil says, “Let’s move those cattle over there to that pasture,” and we do it.

So, what it allows for me to do, and I do it regularly now, is that when I get stale with writing or when I get frustrated with what it’s like working in a university, in the International Center for Creativity, or running creativity consultancy firm, I go out there and I spend some time either driving a tractor, or working with cattle, or shoveling cow manure, or even falling in it sometimes, because what it does is it gives me break from what I usually do.

The other thing that farm therapy does to me is that, when I’m out there working on a field, and I’m supposed to, what we call bush hog, which is cut down a whole bunch of brush or anything, there is a tangible result from beginning to the end. You can see when it’s finished and there’s great satisfaction in that. In our work in teaching and writing, sometimes you often don’t see it.

So, farm therapy is what I recommend for folks who do businesses like us to be able to get away, get out in the fresh air, have somebody else make the decisions for them, and then oftentimes after that, I get some new ideas or some new insights for a new book I’m writing on, or program that I’m delivering, those sorts of things. It’s really taking a break both mentally and physically for how you spend your usual day.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I’m convinced. Farm therapy.

Roger Firestien
I’ll see you on the farm, Pete. We can always use another hand.

Pete Mockaitis
It sounds like our next sponsor is a farm therapy offers.

Roger Firestien
International Harvest or John Deere, right?

Pete Mockaitis
So, I’m excited to talk about creativity and, in particular, I understand that you are capable of generating 100 ideas in 10 minutes, and we can all do this. How is that done?

Roger Firestien
Well, it’s not me that does it. It’s a group. So, let me tell you how it’s done. So, first off, let’s get a couple things clear here. One of the things we’re talking about is that we’re talking about an entire creative process here. Earlier on, in the 1950s, a gentleman named Alex Osborn, who happens to be the O in the advertising agency BBD&O, invented the brainstorming technique. But what Osborn realized was just an idea-generating technique isn’t enough. So, he also invented this process that helps you to define a problem, generate ideas, and then develop some plans for actions.

So, when we talk about generating 100 ideas in 10 minutes, it’s not difficult at all. And here’s the procedure that we follow. First, we’re talking about a group of about five to eight people, that’s about it, right? First thing you need to do is to go over the guidelines for generating ideas: defer judgments, strive for quantity, seek wild and unusual ideas, then combine and build with other ideas. Then, and here’s what’s really crucial, is we do a little warm up activity first, like a 5-minute warmup activity. And some of my favorite warm up activities are like, “How to get a hippopotamus out of a bathtub,” or, “How to improve a bathtub,” or, “What might you be able to do with 10 tons of orange jello,” right? Something fun, something sort of zany like that, and we use Post-Its, and we have people write down their ideas, say them out loud, and jot them up. And so, a warm up activity takes about 5 minutes.

Now, in addition to that, we also do this technique called forced connections, which is a technique that we use to combine different ideas from different perspectives. So, when you get stuck, oftentimes what tends to happen is you’re running down the same route. So, if I’m sitting here and if I’m working on a particular problem on, say, how to write a chapter for a book, and I get stuck, I might look around the room and see what ideas the lamp gives me, or what ideas my model rocket that I made when I was 12 years old gives me, or what ideas I get from pine trees at the backyard. And that’s the real essence of creativity, which is combining ideas in a different way than what they’ve been combined before.

So, we’ll oftentimes use pictures to help people to do that, from various aspects, pictures of food, or nature, or machinery, or people. So, then, let’s take a look at how to generate those 100 ideas. So, let’s say you’ve done a little warmup activity, and you’re working with a group, and you’ve generated about 25 ideas in 5 minutes. That’s not uncommon at all when you’re not judging ideas. Then, give the real problem that you want to work on to the group, take another 5 minutes, and oftentimes the group will generate between 25 or 30 ideas there.

Then we do a technique called brainwriting which actually helps people to write their ideas down. We use a little form where they write three ideas on a Post-It. It consists of nine squares. And what they’re doing this way is they’re working sort of in parallel. So, they’re all working at the same time. You don’t have to worry about a recorder, or a facilitator slowing down the process by getting those ideas up there. At the end of that 5 minutes, we usually have 60 or 70 ideas. It’s not uncommon at all to generate 100 ideas in 10 minutes.

Now, the thing behind that is, oftentimes then, what you’re going to find is about 20% of those ideas, about 20 or 30 ideas, let’s say 20% conservatively, are going to be good ideas that you can take and refine. Pete, what the formula really is in this is the generation of ideas doesn’t take long, but it’s the selection, the refinement, the building of those ideas, it does take the time.

So, let’s say you have an hour meeting and you want to generate some ideas for solving a specific problem you’re working on. First, come in with a well-defined problem, starting with the words that would invite ideas, like “How to…” or, “How might…” Then, give a little break, a little warmup activity work to challenge 15 minutes, and you’ll have about 80 to 100 ideas. Then the rest of that time, the remaining 45 minutes or so in the meeting, that’s what you need to use to select those ideas and refine those ideas and decide which ones you’re going to move forward. So, that’s sort of a formula for about an hour, an hour and 15-minute meeting.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so lots of good stuff in there. Now, let’s talk about the warmup. I imagine the goal here is that you get people have an easier time generating lots of wild ideas about something that is not close to home than they do generating wild ideas about something that they see every day, and so you’re getting their brain in that zone via doing something a little bit more distant. Is that kind of the logic here?

Roger Firestien
Pete, you’re absolutely right. And we do a warmup for three reasons. First, to briefly train the group on the technique. You can’t expect a group to go in there and just get creative, like, “Okay, we need some creative ideas.” So, first, a little training on them. Next, to sanction the time for speculation. And when I say sanctioning the time, people will come in from a meeting and they’ve been busy with other aspects of the day and other things are going on, and so what we do is we draw a line, we say, “Look, the way you’ve been thinking before, judging, putting things into action, executing, we’re not going to do that right now. We’re going to speculate. We’re going to try out some new ideas.”

And then the thing also is to create what we call judgment-free zone where people aren’t judging their ideas. They’re just coming up with those ideas. And you’ve got it exactly, what we want to do is we want to create something that’s fun, whimsical, non-threatening, away from the problem to generate that energy and to also practice the technique.

And so, in the book Create in a Flash, we have a bunch of warm up activities listed on page 69. And so, the whole purpose there, Pete, is for people to defer their judgment, think differently, and sanction that time for speculating. Then you can go in and work on the type of challenge. And I have to tell you, my entire career, when I neglected to do a warmup activity, I did that twice, either I thought the group was already warmed up or I didn’t have time. And what I had to do was go back into a warm up activity.

And, oftentimes, people will say, “Well, warmup activity is silly.” Well, by design it’s silly. Or they’ll say, “Well, I can’t work with my CEO on this.” I’ve had CEOs, I’ve had army generals, I’ve had people in government do warm up activities, they love it because it gives them a chance to loosen up, to have some laughter, and then that energy from that warm up, you move into working on with the challenge at hand. Oftentimes, what tends to happen is, the reason why people are not successful in idea-generating sessions is, one, they haven’t warmed up or, two, they haven’t followed the guidelines for generating ideas.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that makes total sense to me. And the warm up, I think that’s well-stated in terms of the warmup is producing an energy, a state of mind, a groove, and that’s just huge.

Roger Firestien
Thanks.

Pete Mockaitis
I find that when I’m giving a speech that goes amazingly versus, you know, fine between that…on that continuum. The difference is largely what kind of a state did I get into prior to in terms of was I curious and eager to connect with the audience, or was I kind of in my head in terms of I have these eight takeaways that I’m going to convey now.

Roger Firestien
Right. And here they are, one, two, three. I got to get them out, yeah. Yeah, that’s a challenge of every speaker. What I’ve also found too, and I‘m sure you found this too, it’s like less is more. So, yeah, but you get on that track, “I got to get these takeaways out there,” yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, excellent point then on the warmup, and I appreciate hearing about the general in terms of, okay, this is a serious person who has lives at stake who takes the time and finds it great. So, very cool.

Roger Firestien
And also, the thing about that is generals, people like that, will use that. For example, generals realize the value of training and being very, very well-trained. And what this does is it gives some training on something that they have no stakes in at all so they can experience the process, they can experience the procedures. And then when you work on the real challenge, and you’re trained already to do it. I mean, you practice target shooting before you have to go into combat. Same thing, you practice generating ideas in a really fun way before you have to apply them to the challenge at hand. And to your point too, it’s simple but it’s huge. It’s easy to do, it’s easy not to do. And so, it’s just that very simple thing when people do it, they’re successful. When they don’t, generally they’re not.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, I also want to talk about, so we’ve got that five to eight people who are able to generate 25 to 30-ish ideas, lickity-split. And then you do some stuff with Post-Its and three-by-three which turn into a whole bunch more. So, can you go into some details, as to what are we doing with that three-by-three and the Post-It stuff?

Roger Firestien
Well, first off, the Post-Its is pretty common in this business, and we use it in those things called brainstorming with Post-Its. And so, the first 5 minutes is people are generally writing their ideas, they’re saying them, they’re getting them up on a Post-It, and then they’re going up on a flipchart that the facilitator is running, and that’s brainstorming with Post-Its.

This other technique, is called brainwriting. And it’s a really cool tool because what it does is have people work individually. And so, we have a little grid here and we have nine Post-Its on it, three across, three across, three across. We write the creative questions at the top, we say to people, “Write three ideas, put the form out in the middle, pick up a form somebody else has not completed, write three more ideas on that.”

And so, they’re writing ideas continuously. The beautiful thing about this, Pete, is that they already have ideas generated from their brainstorming with Post-Its that are up there on the flipchart. They can use those to build ideas off of this wonderful little brain-writing technique, they can build ideas off of it as well. And the key is to use both. First, is stick ‘em up brainstorming, or the brainstorming with Post-Its where you get all those ideas out in a very wide format, and then, using this brainwriting tool to help people to add onto those ideas to refine them. And, oftentimes, the second round with this brainwriting tool, the ideas are a bit more well-defined because people have to write the ideas down, they don’t say their ideas anymore.

So, they write three ideas, put the form in the middle, pick up a form somebody else has used, write three more ideas, so it’s three ideas and go, and three ideas and go, and three ideas and go. And they will often, say, you’ve come up with 30 ideas with brainstorming with Post-Its, oftentimes people will double that with the brainwriting, 60, because they’re warmed up, they have ideas to build off of, and they don’t have to compete for airtime to get those ideas out there.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you say pick up a form, what’s on the form and what are we doing with that?

Roger Firestien
Well, if I can refer to the book, on page 78-79, also there’s PDFs that go along with this, if go to CreateInAFlashBook.com, there’s a downloadable PDF of this form called brain-writing, and all it is is just a simple little grid with nine squares. We put nine three-by-three Post-Its on it, and write these three ideas and go, and three ideas and go, so it’s really pretty not complicated at all but it’s a group process of getting those ideas out that really gets them going.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Let me get out of this, but aren’t you writing in both of these phases? So, brainwriting is not actually distinctively different with the writing because writing had happened earlier as well? I’m getting hung up on the word brainwriting.

Roger Firestien
Yeah, the distinction between brainwriting is, first, when you’re doing stick ‘em up brainstorming or brainstorming with Post-Its, you’ll write your idea on a Post-It, you’ll say it out loud, you’ll hand them up to a facilitator that will put the idea on the chart. By saying it out loud, other people in the group can build on that idea and add to it.

Now, with brainwriting, you’re not saying your ideas out loud. You’re simply writing three ideas down, putting the form in the middle, picking up another form, reading the ideas that other participants have jotted down, either building on those ideas or adding more ideas that are coming to mind. So, the second time, the brainwriting is, yes, you’re writing those ideas down, yes, you’re recording those ideas, you’re just not saying them out loud, and you’re doing three at a time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, from there, we got a whole bunch of stuff. What happens next?

Roger Firestien
Well, then what you do is you need to converge on those ideas, all right? And we actually talk about this, in addition to Create in a Flash, there’s 20 videos that go along with it. So, when you go to CreateInAFlashBook.com, you can actually see this process happening. And we have in the front of the book the directions to find those online videos so you’ll actually see what we’ve talked about happening, Pete. And that’s probably the best is go to the website there and look at brainwriting in action.

But after writing those ideas, we do a technique called highlighting. And the first thing we do in highlighting is we take just colored dots and we have the person whose problem we’re working on go up to the charts and mark what we call the hits. These are the ideas that are interesting, intriguing, workable, might solve the problem, you like them. You mark as many hits as you like. Then, from there, you take those hits, you cluster them together into themes, right? Then you restate that cluster as an action or as a new idea.

So, what you’ll have is a whole bunch of ideas for solving a particular issue that will cluster around a certain area. Those build into a concept, then you label that concept with a verb phrase, and then from there you can go further to refine the ideas and develop them. So, that’s the basics around generating them, and then focusing on them. What’s real crucial, after you spent all this time to generate these ideas to not just go up and pick one idea. Well, in that case, why did you spend all those times generating those ideas in the first place?

So, the converge is a very gentle converge. First, what’s interesting, intriguing, workable, how do those relate to each other. And then, once you got that, labeling the cluster with a concept or a phrase that really captures the action, the essence of that idea cluster.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And I’d also love to get your take on when we’re trying to create independently on our own, what are some of your pro tips to do that well?

Roger Firestien
Well, very simple, following the same things, creating on your own as you would create in a group. For example, artists have sketchbooks. A dear friend of mine is an artist, when you look through his sketchbooks, he’s got thousands and thousands of sketches in there just jotting down new ideas, just sketches and those sorts of things.

So, when you’re working by yourself, first, define the problem, have a well-defined problem, like, “How to reduce the cost of this project?” or, “How to raise the money for this project?” or, “How to get my leaves raked in my backyard without too much effort?” And then just defer judgment. Don’t judge. Jot down all the ideas that might come to mind. What you might find is the first 10 to 12 ideas, this probably will come pretty easily for you, you kind of probably thought about those ideas before.

The next one is you might have a bit of a challenge around, so that’s when we recommend using this forced connection tool. So, say, you’re looking at ways to reduce costs on a project, well, then you look around the room, and you say, “Well, what ideas does my telephone give me for reducing costs on this project?” Well, maybe an idea would be, communicate the need to it broader. Broadcast out why you need to do it. My phone has got push buttons on, so separate the project down.

And so, that will spur you on to come up with some more ideas, but I recommend people stretch for about 30 ideas. Now, they don’t have to do it all in one setting. The beautiful thing about the creative process and why tractor time or farm therapy is so helpful is when you step away from the challenge, oftentimes new ideas begin to surface there. And that’s when it’s important to have your smartphone with you to just say those ideas into a voice memo, or have a sheet of paper where you write the idea down, because oftentimes when we find that you start working on a challenge, other ideas are going to be coming in because it stirred your brain up to come up with more ideas and more concepts. We have some good research that shows that that seems to be the case.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m curious, this number 30, is there some magic to it?

Roger Firestien
Yeah, a bit of magic. So, one-third, one-third, one-third principle. And so, early on, when we were working with the creative process back in the early 1980s, I ran a consulting company called Multiple Resources Associates, and this was early on in a lot of the development of creative process where we really had to try and chart a place, “Where are we going to get breakthroughs when we’re working with our clients?”

And so, as we went through many, many, many, many transcripts, we often found that idea 30, 32, 33, 34, 35, that’s when the new ideas were coming. And so, this is also based on an early principle around the old brainstorming technique, and essentially, it’s this. The first third of your idea production, about the first 10 to 12 ideas, tend to be the usual ideas. These are the ideas you’ve of thought before. These are ideas that are already roaming around people’s heads.

The second third, from idea 12 to 20, or 25 or so, those are kind of the crazy ridiculous ideas. It seems that people have loosened up a little bit, they get a little crazy, a little goofier. They’ve exhausted the usual associations that they have around solving that problem. Then the next third, the third third, that’s where the pay dirt comes, that’s when people come up, begin to make new combinations using that kind of crazy stuff they came up with the second third, some from the first third, and that’s where the new ideas and insights begin to blossom.

And so, I say the idea 30 to 35, you’re bound to get some new insights there. But what often tends to happen is we sit around in a group and we generate 10 or 12 ideas for solving a problem, and we think we’re getting real creative, well, you’re not. All you’re doing is getting those ideas out there that already romping around people’s heads. The creativity comes in the stretch, the innovation comes in the stretch. But that’s what’s behind that idea of saving the quarter for about 30 ideas or so.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, I’d love to know, you talked about forced connection, hey, you look around, there’s a lamp, there’s a telephone. Are there any other ways you recommend bringing useful stimuli into the equation for association?

Roger Firestien
Well, I want to save your listeners a lot of money because the whole idea of forced connections is really the basis of what creativity is. There’s lots of books out there that give you 101 ways to come up with more ideas, those sorts of things, and they’re all based on the concept of making a sort of remote association, an association with something that’s not related to the problem at all, which is combining ideas that usually don’t appear to be related in any way.

Now, what we use is we use visual forced connections. So, if you’re in a session and the group is slowing down, we’ll have a series of pictures, lots of pictures, and they fall into four categories. One category is people, second category is nature, the third category is machinery or the non-living world, and the fourth category is food. And we’ll just have these pictures just scattered out over a table. When people get stuck, they can take a look at the pictures, see what ideas it gives them, use that to create a connection and come up with a new idea.

Now, you can use pictures but you can also use smells. You can also use sounds or music. You can also use taste. In other words, you’re working on a problem in some way, and you’re tasting cinnamon. What ideas that cinnamon bring to mind? Or you’re working on a problem and you see an ocean liner. What idea does an ocean liner bring to mind? That’s the basics of it, Pete. Taking a look at something or making connection with something that’s not related to the problem at all and use that connection to create a new idea. And that’s my go-to tool.

So, there’s other tools that you can use but if we’re going to give our listeners something that they can use consistently, it’s this forced connection tool. We have an interview on one of the videos of a gentleman named Dr. Robert Gatewood, who took one of my classes and he said, “I would leave class, and as I was driving, I’d be working on a problem, and I’d look around and I’d see what connections I might get from a stoplight, or what connections I might get from a building.”

And there’s an interesting story about forced connections if you want to go into that in a second, but I want to make sure that I’ve responded to your question here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, got it. It’s storytime.

Roger Firestien
Storytime. So, one of the people that we talk about is a gentleman named Wilson Greatbatch. Now, do you know who Wilson Greatbatch is?

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t.

Roger Firestien
Most people don’t. You know what a pacemaker is?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Roger Firestien
Of course, you do. Wilson Greatbatch invented the pacemaker, and he actually lived about 10 miles from where I live, and I got the opportunity to visit with Dr. Greatbatch a number of times. Now, one of the things that led to the invention of the pacemaker was a lot of failures, a lot of trial and learn is what we call them. And Wilson Greatbatch is wonderful about reframing failure. He said, “I look forward to failure as a learning experience. Nine out of ten things that I worked on fail. But the one that works pays for the other nine.”

So, in my conversations with him, the idea for the pacemaker, he told me, actually came from a hazard flasher on the side of a road. So, he’s driving back from a meeting one time, he sees this construction site, he sees all these hazard flashers flashing. That flashing made the connection between the pacemaker electrical charge and this network with the heart. So, that’s one example.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool, yeah.

Roger Firestien
Yeah, cool. They all are, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. So, trial and learn instead of trial and error.

Roger Firestien
Yeah, trial and learn because whenever you do something, you create a result. It might not be the result you anticipated, but the question is, “What can you learn from that result?” If you look at highly-creative people, they see failure in a different way. They see failure, they don’t attach a negative value to it. They see failure as, “Well, gee, that didn’t work. What else might work? What else might work?” Edison was famous for his quotes on this, but he was about halfway into inventing the lightbulb, and somebody asked him, “Mr. Edison, how many tries have you tried to invent a lightbulb that haven’t worked?” He said, “Well, I’ve succeeded in proving 700 ways it will not work. When I find a way that will work, I will be 700 ways closer to that.” And so, it’s that whole attitude about failure.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Well, Roger, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Roger Firestien
So, as far as creativity is concerned, and as far as things that your listeners can take away from, I think it’s really crucial that oftentimes people think that creativity is just coming up with lots and lots of ideas. But what I found over my 40-year career is that oftentimes, most of the time, what we think is the problem isn’t the problem at all. And that’s why it’s important to ask a lot of creative questions, which is what we talk about in the book.

Now, Pete, this is we talked about generating lots of ideas for solving a problem. You can use that same principle to generate lots of creative questions. So, if you’re coming up with creative questions, just differ judgments, strive for quantity, seek wild and unusual questions, combine and build other questions. And when you get those out, once again, 30 questions or so, look through those, find the best one, and then you’re going to to be much more on target for generating ideas.

So, I would say that’s one of my favorite things for your listeners to take with you. It’s like don’t accept the initial definition of the problem. And in my entire career, as I’ve facilitated hundreds of groups of creative problem-solving, there’s been one time, one time only, that the initial definition of the problem was the real problem. The rest of the time, that wasn’t it at all. It was somewhere else.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, by asking, you’re brainstorming different iterations of the problem or question to be solved, and in so doing, you’re sort of following the same process of zeroing in on which one seems the most resonant, workable, compelling?

Roger Firestien
Yes. What we do is we have you phrase those questions beginning with a phrase as a question. So, we use words like “How might…,” or, “How to…”, “What might be all the ways to…” And what those do is they setup the question as a divergent question. In other words, they’re opening your mind to search for ideas. So, “How to reduce the cost…” is very different than saying, “We don’t have enough money, okay?” That statement blocks your thinking. “How to reduce the cost…” tells your brain to begin to start to look for some ideas. So, using language in that way really helps to open up your thinking. It also helps to diffuse a lot of arguments and stuff as well.

So, if you’re in a highly-charged situation and people have different points of views, well, just phrase your point of view as a “How to…” or, “In what ways might we…” you get it up there on the chart and people feel heard, they feel valued that way. That’s one of the other things about the idea-generating process when you’re using something like brainstorming with Post-Its, everybody’s idea is valued, everybody’s idea gets up there, everybody’s idea gets heard, and so that builds teamwork. And the best way to solve a problem or the best way to build a team is to solve a problem together.

Pete Mockaitis
With that, could you now share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Roger Firestien
A favorite quote that I find inspiring? Yeah, yeah, I do have a favorite quote. Thanks. And this is one of my favorites. It’s from Create in a Flash, and I didn’t know this was by this person, but Mike Wallace, a columnist, I love this quote, he said, “If you don’t wake up in the morning excited to pick up where you left your work yesterday, you haven’t found your calling yet.” I just love that quote because if you look at creative people, if you look at people that are passionate about their work, that’s what they do. It’s like, “I’m ready to start tomorrow morning because I’m so excited to pick up where I left off.” So, that’s one of my favorite quotes, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study, or experiment, or bit of research?

Roger Firestien
Ah, well, I’ve got a bit of research. Actually, this is my doctoral research that we did back in 1987. And what we did was we compared groups that were trained in creative problem-solving with groups who were not trained in creative problem-solving. We gave them a real-life problem to solve, we took them over to the television studio on the campus, and we videotaped them while they solved the problem. When we analyzed the videotapes, we found the groups that were trained in creative problem-solving methods, the things that we’re talking about, participated significantly more, they criticized ideas less, they supported ideas more, they laughed more, they smiled more, and they generated twice as many ideas as the groups who were not trained in creative problem-solving.

Now, when we gave those ideas back to the business people that gave us a problem to work on in the first place, we found that the groups who were in creative problem-solving outproduced the untrained groups by about three to one on high-quality ideas. And the output of this is that they had more, better ideas to choose from, so they had a much greater array of ideas that they could choose from. Henceforth, a much greater possibility of solving the problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it’s so interesting. So, three to one on quality, and two to one on quantity.

Roger Firestien
Yeah, just about like that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing.

Roger Firestien
So, again, Pete, what was that again?

Pete Mockaitis
So, you said it was three to one on quality.

Roger Firestien
On quality.

Pete Mockaitis
And two to one on quantity.

Roger Firestien
Yeah, two to one on quantity. Yeah, I’ve never really looked at it that way before, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that means that the average quality score, if you will, I don’t know, of a given idea was better still.

Roger Firestien
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
As opposed to, “Well, yeah, they had more good ideas. They had 10 times as many so some of them were bound to not suck.” It’s like, I don’t know, the average quality was higher too.

Roger Firestien
You know, that’s an interesting way to look at that, a great way to look at that. I’ve got to write another study, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Roger Firestien
Well, come on, “Create in a Flash: A Leader’s Recipe for Breakthrough Innovation.” We just released it. So, I love this book.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit, something you do to be awesome at your job?

Roger Firestien
A favorite habit. Well, I think, yeah, let me give you a couple of things. One is I’m in a wonderful position to be able to kind of control my schedule. So, one of my favorite habits is naps. And if you look at folks that are highly creative, they’ve taken naps, they’ve taken refreshers. And so, if you can sneak in a short 20-minute nap sometime during the day, that gives you what I call as two days. Because you work for a certain pace for a while, and usually about 2:00 o’clock or 3:00 o’clock, I tend to slow down. So, a little nap, a little quick meditation just to refresh, then you’re good for the rest of the day. That’s one.

And then the other thing is just really be aware that you’re always coming up with ideas, and just writing those ideas down whenever they occur to you. So, when I’m out doing farm therapy, I always have my smartphone with me because 99% of the time, I’m going to come up with an idea there to help me with something I’ve been working on, because your brain is working on it all the time just on a deeper level. You just have to get out of the way with your judgmental thinking to let those ideas begin to surface.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Roger Firestien
What you think is the problem is not the problem at all. And I think that’s really one of the biggest nuggets that I can give to people that would say when encountering an issue, or a challenge, or a goal, or an opportunity, don’t accept the first definition of it. Challenge your thinking about it to see the other angles of it, to see this might be a symptom. This might not be the main issue. So, I guess I would say challenge your initial definition of what you think the problem is. And, many, many times, that’s going to really help you to come up with some brand-new insights, insights you wouldn’t have thought of before.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Roger Firestien
Go right to my website RogerFirestien.com, it’s German. And you can go there, you can take a look at the programs we have available. And if you find the Create in a Flash button, you can click on that and find all those videos for free to download, printable PDFs along with that brainwriting form that we talked about. So, RogerFirestien.com.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Roger Firestien
Yes, I think the final call to action would be when you’re working on a challenge, step back from it, right? In other words, first, spend some time figuring out what the real problem is, don’t accept the initial definition of the problem. Challenge your definition of the problem. Step back from it and then be ready to capture those ideas whenever they occur to you. And that I think would be the biggest thing, because we’re coming up with ideas all the time.

And, oftentimes, I think you probably have, Pete, the occasion where maybe you’re falling asleep at night, an idea comes in, and you go, “Oh, I’ll remember that,” or you’ve taken a shower and say, “Oh, I’ll remember that.” Well, no, you won’t, okay? Get that idea down as soon as it comes to mind. So, the big takeaway to help people become awesome at their jobs is one of the things that we know is that when you’re away from work, that’s when you’re going to probably have some of your best ideas. Very few people tell me that they get their best ideas at work. When you’re away from work, that’s the time when the ideas are going to surface, so be ready to capture ideas whenever and wherever they occur to you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Roger, thanks so much for sharing, and I wish you lots of luck and many great ideas.

Roger Firestien
Thank you, Pete. This has been a delight. I really appreciate it.

520: How to Start Finishing Projects with Charlie Gilkey

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Charlie Gilkey discusses how to deal with the obstacles that derail your important projects

You’ll Learn:

  1. The magic number for projects
  2. Signs that a project truly matters to you
  3. When and how to say no to your family, friends, and bosses

About Charlie

Charlie Gilkey is an author, entrepreneur, philosopher, Army veteran, and renowned productivity expert. Founder of Productive Flourishing, Gilkey helps professional creatives, leaders, and changemakers take meaningful action on work that matters. His new book is Start Finishing: How to Go from Idea to Done.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Charlie Gilkey Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Charlie, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Charlie Gilkey
Pete, thanks so much for having me. I’m pumped to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, I’m excited to talk about starting and finishing and getting to done. Let’s start with starting, actually. I understand you don’t choose to start your year in January. How does that work and what’s the backstory here?

Charlie Gilkey
Well, there are several things going on. And thanks for that question. That’s a deep cut. Two things going on. One is the business cycle for the business that I’m in or the year cycle starts actually in August for the back-to-school, you know, back-to-work sort of thing. That’s when everyone comes back online, it’s like, “Hey, we got to get after it.” And so, that’s a really important point for my business.

And I’ve also learned that actually doing your yearly planning, if you’re going to do it on the personal side in February, is a way better time to do it because it kind of lets you shake off the high of New Year’s resolutions and all the things that go along there, and I think we’re way too optimistic during that period of the year. And then if you pay too close attention to the goals you set in, it can be a really good way to feel bad about yourself. But if you kind of wait until February, kind of around Groundhog’s Day and give yourself a redo, what I’ve learned is that we end up making way better sort of annual goals and resolutions during that period.

So, I have kind of two periods in which I do annual planning, but that’s kind of par for the course for me, and then I’m always recalibrating plans and working in it

Pete Mockaitis
That’s clever. Groundhog Day, redo, and I’m thinking Bill Murray right now. Part of that was shot near me in Woodstock, Illinois. Fun fact. So, yeah, that’s a good way to think about it in terms of like the day and where you’re going to choose to start and why. So, thank you for that. Let’s talk about the book Start Finishing. What’s the big idea here?

Charlie Gilkey
The big idea is that finished projects bridge the gap between your current reality and that life you want to live and that work you want to do. And so, a lot of us have, you know, we have really big dreams and visions for ourselves. We have that idea of our best work or our best life, and a lot of times we could feel stuck and we don’t quite know what to do. And it turns out that, again, it’s those finished projects that bridge the gap.

And I think it provides a bit of a different take on productivity, and getting things done, and sort of personal development, which either can be far too granular and focused on tasks, or it can be far too lofty and focused on sort of vision and sort of the big view of your life. And the mess of life and the beauty of life is in this middle world of projects.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, okay. Indeed, the finished projects bridge the gap. And one thing I think I’m coming to learn is that almost finished projects don’t. And I’m thinking about all these instances in which it’s like the vast majority of the hard work is done but it’s not all the way finished and, thus, it doesn’t turn into something.

So, I remember once, we’ve got a multifamily home here and we were trying to rent out one of the units and things were almost completely renovated, cleaned, whatever but there’s like a bunch of cardboard boxes in the corner. And I think that prospective tenants can know that those won’t be there when they move in but, nonetheless, I couldn’t help but notice that every showing we did where the boxes were there did not result in an application, and those that we did with the boxes absent, totally cleaned up, did.

And so, it’s sort of like almost done doesn’t pull it off for you. But it’s kind of encouraging in that it means that there’s very little left to get to finished project status. So, those are my own musings on the finished project piece. Give me your take on that.

Charlie Gilkey
Well, I love that. You know, I talk a lot in the book about displacement which is the idea that anything you do displaces a practical infinity of things you could do, or you can’t do one thing, or you can’t do multiple things at the same time, right? Barring simple things like doing the laundry while listening to a podcast. But when it comes to this significant work that we need to do, what I call best work and what I call those things that really light us up and are part of the matrix of meaning-making that we’re in, we tend to only be able to do one thing at a time.

And the frustrating thing about those half-finished projects is that they suck up all of the time that could’ve been going to something else, but they’re not bridging that gap. They’re not doing the work that they’re supposed to do to power your life. And it would be like investing a hundred bucks a month, for however long you want to do it. Let’s just say it’s 12 months, and you don’t get the return on it until the 13th month, and then you decide on the 12th month to just stop, and then everything disappeared, right? It’s like you’ve already sunk in all of that money, you’ve already sunk in all of that time but you don’t get the reward for it just because you decided to jump to something else. So, absolutely.

And one of the things that I really stress in the book is that we should really be focusing on throughput and not load. And by that, I mean I think we commit too quickly to ideas and end up carrying too many projects around with us and too many things that we’re not going to be able to finish. And so, if you make that commitment to where this week you’re going to, like, “I’m going to do these 17 projects,” and you only do three, well, you’ve carried the additional 14. And I think, unfortunately, what we do is we’ll say, “Well, this week, I overestimated this week so I’m going to do 12,” and then we do three projects.

Well, it turns out that if we just focus on the three that matter most and we get through them faster, not only is it just about efficiency but it’s about that momentum that you can build with these finished projects. And so, depending on where you want to take this, Pete, a lot of times when I tell people I like to focus on three to five projects, the first thing that they’ll do is, like, “I can’t. I got all the things.” But let’s do a reality check here, are you actually finishing those things or is it just a continual state of juggling and a continual state of sort of commenting about the status of a project but not actually moving that project forward? Or is that continual story that you’re going to get to but you don’t?

And I get to say, you know, over the decade I’ve been doing this work with people. There’s momentum, there’s more pride, there’s more joy, and there’s more results just from coming from focusing on fewer things, getting them done, and moving to the next thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, boy, that’s well-said with regard to load because you could feel that, and the word itself, it’s like, “I am shouldering a burden, a load, like a camel or an ox. Like, there’s a lot of things on my plate, on my back here.” And so, you identify these are the things that we’re actually going to sail right through here, we’re good to go.

And it’s intriguing that when you mentioned three to five, you’re getting pushback because, I guess I’m thinking about Jay Papasan who we had on the show with the One Thing, it’s like, “Oh, man, you’re being lenient. You’re giving them three to five instead of just one.” So, let’s talk about that for a moment. Why do you think that’s perhaps the magic number there, three to five projects?

Charlie Gilkey
It’s partially because enough studies both with my own clients and work, and external study showed that that’s about the limit of which we can do. Now, I want to pause here. I love Jay’s work and I find that most people can’t just commit to one thing because when you commit to one thing, I think you often forget. Well, there’s different ways of understanding his book and the message, so that’s one thing to talk about.

I want to make room for projects that are not just economic projects. So, for me, anything that takes time, energy, and attention is a project. And so, finding a place for those cardboard boxes you’ve mentioned, that very well could be a project, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s why it wasn’t done.

Charlie Gilkey
That’s why it wasn’t done.

Pete Mockaitis
It took multiple steps. There’s too many to just shove in the alley so I had to take another…do something else there.

Charlie Gilkey
Yeah, you got to find out where they are, and you got to sort, and you got to figure out which other closet you’re going to put them in, and then you open that closet and realized, “Oh, crap, there’s something in there. This got to go somewhere else.” It’s kind of like a shell game and stuff sometimes, right? But, also, getting married, getting divorced, having kids, moving across the United States, getting a new job, like all of those things are projects.

And, unfortunately, we tend to prioritize economic projects, or creative projects, or work projects, or however you want to say that, and we try to squeeze the work over our lives and the leftover, the time leftover from the economic projects, and we’re just not getting to it. And so, again, not to go overly critical of the One Thing, but it’s like we are not just work-related people. Like, our thing in life, our thing at work is one of the many things that we might want to attend to. We might also need to attend to our aging parents that we need to help transition into elder care, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I think that in the conversation, Jay mentioned, “Hey, what’s the one thing within like a context or a domain?” “The one thing in my marriage, the one thing in my business, etc.”

Charlie Gilkey
Etcetera. And so, I think people misunderstand his message in that way, and so I just wanted to say, like, we’re actually super aligned in that way, but that’s where we start saying the five projects, or three to five projects. Yeah, you have to look across the domains of your life and not just pick the one thing, and not just pick like one domain, and say, “I’m going to go all in on that.”

And so, for instance, right now, I’m in the middle of launching this book and doing the PR too for this book, and it’s a major project. I’m also in the middle of reintegrating back into my business after working on the book for so long, so that’s another project. And I’m also getting back into the gym and working with a personal trainer. That’s a project, so that gets me through it.

But, anyway, you asked why three to five. I think that many lets you invest in the buckets of your life that matter without spreading yourself too thin. Two, I think it’s when we look at sort of the cognitive load that we humans can bear, we sort of heard the five plus or minus two, I think, is now four plus or minus two, like, the things we can remember. Well, when you have a fewer number of projects and you can always rattle off what you’re working on, it turns out you don’t need a super complicated productivity system or an app to help you with that. You can always just sort of have those things front of mind.

And the last thing is every one of the projects, another way of thinking through this, every one of the projects that you carry, they need fuel. And I talk in the book about focused blocks which are 90 to 120 blocks of time where you can sit down and make substantial progress on things. So, if it’s a creative project, it might be that time where, let’s say it’s writing, where you actually are able to sit down and get some good words in, lean into the project, get out of the project rut. But it doesn’t have to be creative work, it can be, again, going back to that garage.

A lot of times we don’t end up cleaning the garage because we look at it, it’s like, “Oh, I think I can just move it around,” but you know that it’s going to take you three to four focused blocks because you got to figure out where everything goes and do the organizing. And because we don’t schedule that time, we know we won’t be able to make any meaningful progress, so we don’t actually start.

And so, when we look at the sort of the three to five projects, it’s like, how many of these focused blocks do you have in your life, and in a week, that you can allocate towards these things?” And no focused blocks equals no momentum.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, yeah, I’m seeing how the pieces are coming together. So, I’ve got my three to five projects, I’ve got focused blocks for 90 to 120-ish minutes, and then I’m allocating particular focused blocks towards particular projects in order to get momentum. So, I understand you’ve got a full-blown nine-step method, so I think we’re already getting into a couple of them. How about we sort of get the full view here?

Charlie Gilkey
Yes. So, the full nine-step method would be, well, there are different ways we can say this. But where people often will fall down is that they go immediately from idea to working on it, and that’s really not a great way to do it because we don’t do ideas, we do projects, and so we have to do some work to convert that idea. But before we can get there, in chapter two, well, one of the steps is really getting clear about the obstacles that are in the way from you doing this life-changing work that we’re talking about. And if you don’t start with looking at that, the first thing that you’ll do is choose an idea, start working with it, and then see, all of a sudden, that you’re upside down with it and you can’t go forward with it and sort working backwards. So, it’s a root-cause approach.

So, the first step is getting in touch with some of those root causes that keep that gap between our current reality and the life we want to live. So, second sort of step is to pick an idea that really matters to you. And that seems like obvious except for what matters to us is oftentimes not the first things that we’ll pick because of fear, because of the seeming difficulty, and we end up choosing low-hanging fruits, or we end up choosing other people’s priorities.

And then when we get into the messy middle, or towards the end of the project, we don’t get anywhere. And that’s largely because, at the end of the day, that idea did not matter enough to us, it didn’t supply the amount of meaning and sort of commitment juice that we needed it to, and so there’s just a certain point in sort of imagine this lever of, like, at past a certain point of difficulty and grit, if you don’t have the amount of internal emotional buy-in and sort of spirit in that project, the difficulty of it is going to win, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Understood.

Charlie Gilkey
And so, you have to pick an idea that matters enough for you to invest a life force that is going to take to push through it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, certainly. And I think that’s well-said with regard to just because you’re doing it doesn’t mean that it matters to you. You very well could’ve chosen it because you passed up the bigger things out of fear, or, “Ooh, that just sounds hard.”

Charlie Gilkey
Yeah, it just sounds hard. And I want to pause here because, over the last few decades, I think we’ve lost a lot of grit and we just sort of baked into some sort of talent myth, like if it’s hard it’s not for you because if we look at all the prodigies and the people that seemed to do things super easily, it’s like, “Oh, they got that talent. And the people that have the talent, they should go do those things. And if you don’t have that talent, maybe you go find something else that’s easier for you to do.” Right?

And what that ends up doing for a lot of us is that when we start something and it gets difficult, we sort of encode that maybe that’s a sign that we’re doing the wrong thing, maybe it’s a sign that there’s something else that I should be doing because it shouldn’t be this hard. And my whole point is, first off, if it’s worth doing well, it’s worth doing badly in the beginning. Bottom line, if it’s worth doing well, it’s worth doing badly in the beginning.

And, second off, in almost all these cases, these effortless talent displays that we see, it’s a lot of hard work and cultivation of those people behind the scenes, so they have a certain amount of budding seed time that we don’t have. And so, I want people to orient themselves so that when they see something that’s difficult, or when they see…well, let me say it this way.

I talk in the book about thrashing. And thrashing is sort of the meta work and emotional flailing and “research” that you’ll do to push an idea forward but it doesn’t actually push an idea forward, right? It’s just thrashing and flailing. And the thing about it is we don’t thrash about things that don’t matter to us. Like, no one has a mini-existential crisis about doing the laundry or taking the trash out. There’s no “Why am I the right person to do it? Is now the right time? What if I’m not good enough?” It’s like you do it or you don’t do it, right?

But when it comes to time to some of these best-work projects, which is what I call these life-changing projects that really only you can do and that change the world in really phenomenal ways, those are the ones where we’ll have all those sort of mini crises, and those are the ones where we’ll start wondering if we got what it takes, and so on and so forth.

And so, it turns out that the more it matters to you, the more you’ll thrash. And so, it’s a really good sign when you’re feeling that feeling of, like, “Wow, this is…” not just that it’s daunting, because you can take on a project that doesn’t matter and could be daunting, but you’re thinking like, “Wow, I don’t know if I’ve got what it takes. I don’t know if I’m ready for this,” those are actually really good signs that the project matters to you, because if it didn’t, you wouldn’t be feeling that way.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, that is one worth sitting with it and remembering because you want it to come to mind when that feeling occurs again. Indeed, wow, yeah, so many implications when you’re experiencing, “Oh, my gosh, I don’t know if I have what it takes.” It’s indicative of that’s something you care about a lot or that thought would not have occurred to you at all, the, “I don’t know if I’ve got what it takes to…” And it’s not just about how challenging it is, because you might say, “But I don’t know if I have what it takes to take out the trash every day.” The take-out-the-trash challenge, you know. It’s, like, that’s probably not go do it. It just sort of says, “That’s dumb. I don’t feel like bothering.” So, yeah.

And I’ve often had this thought. I’ve said to my wife numerous times, like, when I’m feeling frustrated by something, I think, “Well, you know what, it’d be a lot easier if I didn’t care so much.” It’s like, “If I didn’t care, if my clients were getting great results in ROI from our trainings, then I’d just be like whatever.” But I do and, thusly, I get a little bit worked up associated with if folks are doing the exercises and understanding and connecting with the stuff.

Charlie Gilkey
Absolutely. It’s kind of like envy as a compass. And by that, I mean we’re not envious of other people when they don’t have something that we want. We’re only envious when someone has something that we actually care about. And, unfortunately, we try to wash out the envy, we try to wash it out, but, for me, I’m like, “Oh, maybe let’s pause a little bit and say, ‘What is it in this moment, in that sort of feeling that you have that’s telling you that something matters? And what are you going to do about it?’” as opposed to just pretending like you shouldn’t feel it.

Like, you like what you like, and you value what you value, and that’s one of those learning to center those fundamental truths and that it’s perfectly fine to like what you like and to value what you value, and you have permission to do that, then let you say, “You know what, that man with the shoes on over there, those shoes are really kicking, man. I love those shoes. I wish I had them.” So, what is it about that and what do you want to do to address that?

Maybe you decide later on, “No, maybe I was just being materialistic,” or maybe, just maybe, you like the shoes, and that’s enough for you to say, “You know what, I’m going to do something about that, meaning I’m either going to buy it, or if I can’t afford it, it’s worth it to me to do the work that I need to do to exchange my labor for money I need to get those things.” And that is a choice that I don’t think we allow ourselves to really sink into a lot of times unless they are socially-approved values and likes, in which case it’s kind of a given that we get those.

Like, many people, I know this is kind of straying in the personal finance land, but many people don’t question the value of owning a home because it’s one of those given, it’s like that’s just what you do. You go to school, you get a job, you get a partner, you buy a house, right? And so, deciding not to buy a house and deciding to be a renter for the rest of your life because you realize that 3% to 5% of you the cost of your home is going to be spent in maintenance, and those type of things in general. Like, that becomes important but a lot of people don’t give themselves permission to say, “You know what, this whole home-buying thing, not something I care so much about. I care more about freedom. I care more about that.”

And, again, I’m not trying to make a strong case for that particular economic choice. I’m just trying to say there’s a lot of decisions like that, that we default to the socially-approved cues and, unfortunately, end up living our lives doing work that we would rather not do to get stuff that we really don’t want, and then miss out on this one precious life that we have in front of us and that way we could have lived it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s adding up and resonating there in each of those components in terms of this is just what you do versus you’ve given some real thought to it. And when it comes to envy, I think it’s also intriguing to look and see if there are some finer distinctions because you got my wheels turning in terms of I saw this Netflix documentary about Bill Gates and I had some envy, but I don’t at all have envy for Elon Musk, right? And so, here are these two super rich people who are innovating but there’s a distinction and that is sort of rich fodder for potential insight. So, it’s like, where do you have envy and where is there a similar situation where you don’t? And then we’re really homing in on something.

Charlie Gilkey
Yeah. So, what does that envy tell you about your values? That would be the question, right? And where is the lack of envy in other places, not do the same things? So, again, these are really good tools. And the thing about it is, especially productivity but I’ll say the broader sort of personal development, we approach it from a headspace in like a thinking space. But when it comes down to actually doing the work that changes lives, changes our lives, changes other people’s lives, and having the courage and being able to set up the boundaries, it’s always going to come back to your heart space. It’s always going to come back to stuff that really matters.

And so, I encourage people to actually steer with that as opposed to getting caught into all the things sort of in that headspace of what you should do. And, just while I’m on that, just about any time you’re telling yourself you should do something, pause. Because, usually, what you’re telling yourself is that there’s some external standard that is a guideline for what you ought to be doing. And where I want you to pause is say, “But is that really true for me? Is it really true that that’s the right thing for me to do?”

And sometimes when you should, in the case of given who I am and what I care about, this is the thing that I need to do, but I’ve learned so oftentimes, so many times we only use the word should when it’s an external rule, an external guide. And when it’s our own sort of compass, we say, “I get to…” or, “This matters to me,” or, “I want to…” or, “This is meaningful.” Like, we use all sorts of words that are different than the should word. Does it make sense, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, absolutely. Yeah, I have been thinking about should a lot lately in terms of, I guess, when I see or hear should, I get very curious as well in terms of “What do you really mean by that?” And I find, often, that should, all that really means is, “If one were to invest additional time, energy, money, resource in this domain, there would be some kind of a benefit.” But, like you said with regard to opportunity cost, well, is that really worthwhile?

And I’m really intrigued when I hear it with regard to people talking about TV or Netflix, like, “Oh, have you seen the latest season of this?” And I say, “Oh, no, I should really watch that.” And I’m thinking, “Man, really, should you? I think you got the right idea and I’m the one who should watch less Netflix.”

Charlie Gilkey
Yeah, stop shooting on yourself is a long way of saying it.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly.

Charlie Gilkey
Like, if you wanted to do it, you would have watched the show already. If it really mattered to you, it just turns out that, I talk a lot about cage matches, whether it’s a priority cage match or a project cage match, and that’s just a homage to my upbringing in the ‘80s of professional wrestling, where the basic idea, if you’ve never seen this, it’s like a bunch of competitors get into the ring, and the strongest one, some way or the other, ends up throwing everybody else out or beating them into submission. So, I know, terrible metaphor for this particular context.

But there are certain priorities and certain things that they’re always going to win that cage match. If you are a parent and something comes up about your kids, you’re going to displace almost everything else to make sure that their needs are attended to. And so, what I want more of us to do is to look at all the OPP, the other people’s priorities, not the Naughty by Nature O.P.P. song, but that’s also a great song, right? I want to look at everyone else’s priorities and say, “You know what, why and how are those more important than my own?” Because you could be that person that runs around trying to fill everybody else’s priorities and end up exhausted and depleted and frustrated, and still not be able to appease everyone and fill their buckets.

Or, you can say, “You know what, I can’t be everything for everyone. I’m choosing for the smaller set of priorities to be who I am and to live in the way, live and work and allocate my time in a way that really accentuates those values.” And that does mean that there are a lot of people who might be mad at you, there might be a lot of people who decide not to be friends with you, or there might be a lot of other, like there might be some social fallout for that. But, again, look forward into a decade, would you rather have done the things that really are going to power the type of life you want to live or just continue to maintain other people’s projects and priorities?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. And while we’re here, as I’m rolling with it, what are your pro tips on saying no?

Charlie Gilkey
Pro tips on saying no. It depends on where it’s coming from, so I got to start with that. Obviously, if your boss walks into the door, walks into the office, and is like, “Hey, I’ve got a new project and priority for you,” be careful about saying no to that because you may not get to say yes to the job tomorrow, right? And so, there’s a context there. And even with bosses, and I’ve had to do this in the military, back when I was in the Army, where it’s like you get handed this project, or you get handed this mission, you’re like, “Okay. Well, I can do this but it may displace some of these other priorities that you have for me and that we’ve already talked about. So, do you want me to do this instead of that? Or like what’s the priority conversation here?”

And that I think always returning to, especially the work environment, to priorities is a good way to talk about it, because you’re not saying, “Screw you. I don’t care.” You’re saying, “I’m here to do a certain job, or I’m here to make sure that I’m providing the best value to this team that I can. We’ve already discussed these other ways in which I could provide that value. Now, there’s this new thing. Is this better than that?” And that’s a good conversation that a lot of teams can have even that a lot of people can have with their boss.

I think when it’s with your friends and family, first off, my observation is that we spend too little time talking to friends and family about what actually matters to us, and so we end up negotiating a bunch of trivial things. We get invited to go to the club, or you get invited to go to watch the football game on Saturday, or you get invited to all these sorts of things, or you get expected to, like, “Hey, can you watch my kid today?” or, “Can you come over?” and there’s never been that talk of, like, “Actually, Saturday is the day that I spend in community service, and that’s why I’m down to soup kitchen every Saturday because that’s super important to me.” We haven’t established our priorities first and so we’re always negotiating what matters on the backside of things.

So, step one is to have more intentional conversations with your friends and family about things that matter to you, the projects you’re working on and how they fit into this life that you want to live, in that way when you do get asked to do something or requested to do something, there’s a preexisting conversation about some things that matter. It changes it, it changes the conversations because the people around you understand that it’s not like you’re sitting at home on that Saturday evening just looking for something to do, right? You have these other plans for yourself and other things that truly matter, so it does help with that conversation.

The second way that I would look in on this one would be to, where it’s a resonant request, meaning it’s from someone who can legitimately make that request, and it’s something that, in general, like you’re open to doing it but perhaps can’t do it right now, is always provide that alternative. It’s like, “You know, I’m sorry that I can’t do that that day because I have some preexisting commitments. Is there a way that I can do that Wednesday or Friday or this other period of time? Because what you’re requesting from me, I actually do care about and I care about the relationship that we’re in here. That particular time is not the best time.”

And the last thing that I would say is, and this goes back to talking about things that matter and being honest with your friends and family, is if there are certain things that you’re being requested to do and they don’t resonate, and they aren’t something you’re ever going to do, don’t BS people and be like, “Oh, yeah, I’ll get to it,” or, “Yeah, it sounds great,” or, “We’ll have coffee in three months.” If you know that you don’t want to have coffee in three months, avoid that. Avoid setting that sort of precedent. And I know that seems perhaps obvious, and maybe it seems hard, but I think too many people are not honest with the people around them for fear of rejection, or for fear of becoming a social pariah, or whatever that is, and we end up negotiating a lot of things that, if we were just being forthright with folks, we wouldn’t have to be negotiating.

Pete Mockaitis
Charlie, I have no interest in drinking coffee with you.

Charlie Gilkey
Hey, I got it. Cool.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s not true, Charlie. I think it’d be a lot of fun.

Charlie Gilkey
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, how does one say that?

Charlie Gilkey
How does one say, “I’m not interested in having coffee”?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Ever.

Charlie Gilkey
Ever.

Pete Mockaitis
Because I think that’s kind of what you’re saying. They’re saying, “Hey, in a few months when things quiet down,” it’s like that’s kind of what you mean is that’s just fundamentally is not worth doing to you.

Charlie Gilkey
Yeah, that’s a tricky one, right? Well, here’s what I’ll say. Very rarely do I have someone out of the blue who doesn’t know just ask me to go for coffee, right? So, typically, it’s in the context where they know I got a lot of stuff going on, and so I can say, “Ooh, I’m going to have a hard time.” Or, what I will normally say is, “Hey,” especially if I don’t know them and I really don’t want to have coffee, like, “What’s your thought there? What are you thinking?” And this may just be peculiar to my line of work because I am a coach and things like that.

If it comes up with doing all these things, like, “I’d love to have coffee because I want to pick your brain about something,” then I can say, “Hey, Pete, I’d love to have that conversation. I am a professional coach, and the best way for us to have that conversation would be under this sort of structure. Are you open for that conversation?” And, basically, what that’s saying in some way, without being a butthole about it, is, one…

Pete Mockaitis
It ain’t free.

Charlie Gilkey
It ain’t free. And, two, if it matters to you, like if it matters for you enough to do it, then let’s have that conversation. But, for me to show up and do that for free, like, again, that’s displaced other people who pay me to do this, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, yeah.

Charlie Gilkey
And, on that note, I have a certain amount of time that I just think of as service to the world and community service and things like that. And so, there are some people who are like, “You know what, that’d totally be something that I would pay…” like someone would pay me to do. But, in this circumstance, I just feel called that this is a conversation that I want to be in and so I’ll do it.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Charlie Gilkey
But, again, I don’t get a lot of that. I know women actually get a lot more requests for coffee, and it’s kind of one of those things. Are they requesting you to coffee to pick your brain? Which is basically that conversation we were just having, Pete. Or are they wanting to establish a friendship? And so, I think, largely speaking, the best way to say no sometimes is to say, “Let’s determine what we’re actually trying to do.”

If you want to avoid that tendency to say yes too quickly, and this does seem to contradict what I was saying a little bit earlier, your go-to is always, “Let me check my schedule and see what projects I have, and see how I can make that work.” And then say, “Let me get back to you in a day or so.” And then that at least gives you enough time to not overcommit yourself, but also think about how you’re going to disengage from that.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Thank you. Well, Charlie, we got a lot of good stuff here. I had a big list going in. You’ve distinguished three different ways projects get stuck, and I think that’s worth mentioning. So, can you give us, what are these three categories and how do we deal with those?

Charlie Gilkey
Yeah, can I get a three and a half here?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, 3.5, yeah.

Charlie Gilkey
Three-point-five because I kind of want to talk about the red zone on this one.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Charlie Gilkey
Because the red zone is a metaphor, I’m appealing to American football, where as you get in that last 20 yards of the drive, a lot of teams will fumble it, or a lot of teams will screw up in that last 20 yards, and then end up in a field goal situation, or a turnover situation. And the reason you end up in a red zone is because they’re such tight space that everything working against you doesn’t have to spread itself so thin.

And so, projects can get stuck in that red zone where you’re in that last sort of 3% that seems to take as long as the full 97% before, and a lot of that is just about, again, that’s when your perfectionism is going to come up, that’s when your procrastination is going to come up, that’s when all of the implications of the scope and goal will creep, start coming up. And so, just understand that that’s a normal part of the process.

And in the book, I do give some ways to work through the red zone, but part of it is doubling down at the end and not thinking that you’re just going to be able to slide it home. I’m being super quick there because I’m conscious of time.

The other three sort of ways projects get stuck, so there are cascades, there are logjams, and there are tar pits. Cascades are when you have a series of projects that you got to do step A before you do step B before you do step C, and step A gets behind, so step B gets behind, so step C gets behind, and you might have a whole cascade of those. And at a certain point, I think we’ve all been in that where you start spending more time trying to keep your projects up to date and communicating with people about those projects than just getting those projects done in the first place, and it just keeps slipping on you.

And so, the trick of solving the cascade is you actually have to clip both ends of the cascade. You have to stop new projects coming in and, in a lot of times, you have to look at those projects that are backed up and start deferring them, start dropping them, and start focusing on getting the ones that you can through so that you get it going again. So, you can’t just focus on the new projects.

So, there are times, Pete, where people will come to me and they’ll tell me what they’re doing, it’s like, “All right. So, first thing is we’re on a new project diet, right? You don’t get to take on any new projects until we get these ones done because we don’t have any space to add anything anyways. It’s just going to be a frustrating conversation for both of us three weeks later because you’re going to tell me, ‘I didn’t make any progress on anything.’ And I’ll ask you why, because you didn’t have time, so on and so forth, so let’s not do that.” New project diet.

So, you got to sort of clip both ends. Once you get enough of those projects going, then maybe start accepting new projects back into the pipeline. And how that might work in a work context is, again, talking to your boss and being like, “Look, here’s what’s happening. I’m not able to get any of these projects done because of the rate this is coming. I need two weeks or I need a week where I can just focus on getting these things caught up. Here’s my plan for that. Is that all right with you?”

And a lot of times, when faced between you not getting something done, and you getting something done, bosses and teammates would much rather you get something done. And so, it’s not as hard of a conversation as people make it. You just have to admit that the amount of inputs that are coming in exceed your ability to put them in the output mode. And that’s a hard conversation for a lot of us to have, but having that conversation after four months of struggling, doesn’t do you any favors. If you see that, you might as well get ahead of it.

You know, a lot of what we’ve been talking about today is about taking the hard parts or maybe the pain parts of getting stuff done and putting them on the frontside of things, because the idea is that at some point, if you’re going to be falling behind and overcommitting and your projects are going to be stacking up on you, there’s a certain amount of pain that that’s going to cause. We know that. And so, it’s not necessarily avoiding the pain. It’s, can you put some of the pain at the beginning of it so that you don’t have to face so much of it later on? So, cascade, that’s how you handle cascades.

Logjams are when you have too many projects competing for the same amount of time. This is the classic case where you have five deadlines on Friday, and you start looking at all the work it would take to do those deadlines. There’s just no way you can do them all at the same time. So, it’s different than the cascade, because cascade, you can kind of think of like projects stacked back to back. A logjam is like projects stacked on top of each other, and there’s just a certain amount that’s kind of like trying to push the golf ball through the garden hose. It doesn’t work, right?

So, with the logjam, some of it is similar in the sense of like a no-new-project diet will help but you really have to get real about, like, “Which of those projects that are trying to compete for the same amount of time have to be done?” Like, if you don’t do them, you’ll get fired, or it will cause a lot of pain, and which ones are nice to do? And those nice to do ones, or would be good to get done, or the ones that get deprioritized so you can focus on getting those ones that will get you in hot water done, and then you can sort of reestablish the flow of your projects again.

And the last one is a tarpit. And I’ve learned this for a lot of creative projects, but a tarpit is when that project is like you sort of touch it a little bit, and then the second you let it go, it starts sinking in a tarpit, in like one of those Jurassic tarpits, it gets stickier and deeper and deeper. And not only do you have to work to pick it up, you have to work to pull it out of it all over again. So, if you’re ever stuck with one of those projects and the mental or spiritual or literal closet, you know what I’m talking about. It’s so hard to resurrect those things. And then once you do, the second you let it go, it starts sinking back in there.

And so, the thing about tarpits is a lot of times it’s some layer of fear that keeps that thing hiding in the background, or there are some deep sort of emotion around it, and you’ve got to get clear about what that is before you get back into that project, because if you don’t address it, the same pattern of it sinking deeper and deeper is going to keep happening.

And then the other thing about tarpits, projects in a tarpit, is you want to make sure to give it enough time, enough of those focused blocks that I’ve talked about, that you can go ahead and clear all of the muck and get some significant progress on it, because, I’ll tell you what, there are a few things better than seeing one of those tarpit projects and figuring out, it actually does still matter to you, you’ve just been daunted or overwhelmed or steered by it, and then it’s knuckling down for two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, getting it done. It’d be like, “You know what, it’s done. It’s out of my soul. It’s out my emotions, out of my brain, and I can move onto the next thing, feeling so much more buoyant, and not just weighed down by that project that’s just sort of haunting me from the closet.”

Pete Mockaitis
And can you give us some examples of projects that often fall into the tarpit category?

Charlie Gilkey
Yeah. So, creative projects and creative, broadly speaking, so if you want to write a book, yeah, that can be a tarpit project. If you’re a musician, you’ve been meaning to write an album, those fall into the tarpit pretty quickly because it can be challenging to bare your soul in the ways that it takes to do that type of creative work.

A common tarpit project that I’ve seen from people, I haven’t had this problem yet because of the age of my parents, but it’s when you end up with heirlooms and sentimental items that you inherit from your parents when they pass. They end up in garages and closets where you just can’t get in there, and you can’t figure out what to do with your mom’s baby shoes that she gifted to you for some reason.

And so, those types of projects, and anything around clearing out the material belongings or material items that exists from relationships, so it could be that you have that box. I know of a few of my female friends that have boxes of letters and cards from boyfriends they had in high school, right? And I’m like, “Well, okay. So, what’s that about?” But just getting in there and figuring out what to do with it and things like that can be a total tarpit.

For a lot folks, financial stuff, getting your taxes in order, figuring out where all your money has gone, is going, might go, anything around money can be one of those tarpit projects which is like, “You know, I want to get in it, I get in there, I poke around a little bit, but I don’t actually make the investment. I don’t actually buy the insurance. I don’t actually do the thing that I need to do.” Those tend to be classic sources of tarpits.

And what else? I think those are three pretty good cases of that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s lovely. Thank you. Well, tell me, Charlie, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Charlie Gilkey
I know we’re wrapping things up, but I wanted to talk briefly about success packs because it’s a game-changer for people. And success packs are just a group of people that you put around yourself and your project that really help you figure out how to go. I would normally talk a little bit more about this, but the thing about success packs is they help you convert “how” problems into “who” solutions.

And when you use them, it takes a lot of that overload that we can feel, that overwhelm that we can feel about having to have it all figure out ourselves, and all the work that we might do, and feeling alone, and just realizing that we have a team of people that we can reach out to for different reasons. And so, whenever you’re wanting to do work that matters for you, before you start making heavy plans, before you start jumping headlong in there, think about the group of people that you would want to put around you that will be your advisors, that will be your helpers, that will be the people who benefit from the projects, and that will be your guides so that, again, you’re not stuck doing this type of work alone.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Thank you. So, now, tell me about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring.

Charlie Gilkey
This one is from Lao Tzu from the Tao Te Ching and it goes, I’ll give this version of it, “Because the master is aware of her faults, she is faultless.” And the idea there goes that because she’s honest about her limitations and constraints and who she is, those limitations, constraints and character quirks don’t end up tripping her up and making her life harder than it needs to be.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood.

Charlie Gilkey
And so, I love that because I think a lot of times we don’t want to talk about those constraints and limitations and challenges. It’s kind of like when people are like, “Well, we don’t want to talk about the hard things because it makes them real.” But if you arm is broken, like you talking about your arm being broken doesn’t break it. It’s already broken. So, what are you going to do about it? And so, I love that one because whenever I’m, one, it allows a lot of room for humility but it also allows a lot of room for hope at the same time.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, thank you. And how about a favorite study, or experiment, or bit of research?

Charlie Gilkey
I’ve been really geeking out on the marshmallow test, and especially that they got it wrong.

It turns out that that was largely, when they did the research on the data and they tried to run it again, what they found out was actually a determination of someone’s social status was actually what was determining their ability to hold out or not. And the reason I’m super pumped about that finding is, one, having grown up as a poor kid, and just seeing how different realities manifest because of just where you grew up on the opportunity divide, gave me a lot of hope there. But it also reminds me that we need to be super careful about the judgments we make on people, and that we need to dig deeper when we’re starting to see some of these types of trends.

And so, again, it’s one of those big things that’s largely grit determined what you would be able to do in life, and it turns out that where you start in life determined how much grit you may have. And that means, in some ways, grit is a muscle that we can all work on, and our future is not necessarily predicated by where we grew up, even though that has a super strong influence on it.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Charlie Gilkey
Well, since I got the quote from that, I probably should say the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Charlie Gilkey
The tool that’s popping up to me is the AlphaSmart Neo2 which is a late ‘90s word processor. It’s, basically, a keyboard with an LCD screen on it. And it’s really helpful for writing when you’ve been super distracted, or when you got a lot going on. It’s actually what I wrote about 95% of Start Finishing on. And when it comes to quality words and volume of words, I have yet to find a better solution than the AlphaSmart Neo.

Pete Mockaitis
Fascinating. Thank you. And how about a favorite habit?

Charlie Gilkey
That would have to be my morning routine. And so, I drink tea and meditate for at least 25 minutes in the morning, and that 25 minutes setup the rest of the day. And there’s a marked difference when I don’t have that 25 minutes than when I do, or when I don’t prioritize it. So, that is the habit that keeps all the other habits going.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Charlie Gilkey
I don’t have a really good one but what resonates is a quote but something that a lot of readers have said about this book, is really commenting that the part about them not being uniquely defective really stands out. So, I can say it in a quote form. So, in the book, I talk about, in chapter one, I just remind people that we’re not uniquely defective. We’re not fated to being able to get our stuff together. And we’re not fated to always be in struggles with that. And I think that’s such an important point because a lot of times we approach really important stuff from a frame of like there’s something uniquely defective about us that’s going to keep us from being successful.

And when you let go of that belief, when you let go of that way of orienting yourself to the world, and you see that, to quote Marie Forleo of like everything is figure-outable, and you are fundamentally able to change if you will yourself to do it, it opens up the world of possibilities. And so, yeah, that’s the one I would put down as you’re not uniquely defective.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Charlie Gilkey
So, if you’re interested in the book, go to StartFinishingBook.com, that’s all one word. If you’re interested in the broader body of work that I’ve got, you can find it at ProductiveFlourishing.com.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Charlie Gilkey
Yeah. In the next full week that you have, reach into that closet of your soul where you put one of those projects that really matter, one of those ideas that really matter, that will make your work better, that will make your colleagues work better, that will make your workplace better, and start thinking about, “How can I spend at least two hours this week bringing that idea to life and turning it into a project?” Start with that two hours and if that’s all you’ve got is two hours a week, better to work on that and make work awesome than to leave it in there waiting for a better time.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Charlie, this has been so much. Thank you and good luck in all of your finishing projects.

Charlie Gilkey
Thanks so much for having me, Pete.

519: How to Have Productive Disagreements with Buster Benson

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Buster Benson discusses how to conquer your fear of conflict and start disagreeing well.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The surprising cost of avoiding conflict
  2. Eight crucial steps for productive disagreement
  3. What to do when you disagree with your boss

About Buster

Buster Benson is an entrepreneur and a former product leader at Amazon, Twitter, Slack, and Patreon. He’s now editor of and writer for the Better Humans publication on Medium, creator of 750Words.com which brings private journaling to a safe place on the web, and developer of Fruitful Zone, an online platform facilitating healthy discourse. He is also author of the Cognitive Bias cheat sheet with over one million reads.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Buster Benson Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Buster, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Buster Benson
Thank you. I’m really excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to be talking to you. There have been no other guests who have created a poster that hangs in my office.

Buster Benson
Oh, wow. Cool.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you have that unique distinction. “The Cognitive Bias Codex,” it is a work of art. And could you maybe share the story of that because I’m thinking it’s so cool?

Buster Benson
Yeah. It was a really strange and long story but like, basically, I have been interested in cognitive biases fairly pretty much my whole life and yet I always felt them really hard to remember. There’s just so many of them, there’s 200 plus, they all have really weird names, like the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon so there was no easy way for me to actually internalize what was happening here. And I’ve decided to take a couple of weeks, a couple of years ago, in 2016, to essentially try to eat this entire body of knowledge and figure out how to synthesize it into something I can understand.

And so, what came out of it was this framework where, instead of thinking about biases as mental bugs where your brain is glitching out, they’re actually all there to solve hard problems, like there’s too much information in the world, so we do have to filter some things out. Nothing really makes sense so we do have to connect the dots and fill in the gaps with sometimes generalities and stereotypes. And we also have to do things, like we can’t just sit and talk about it all day long. We got to go out and make decisions and take action, and that means that we have to be confident even though we don’t have all the information in front of us.

And so, all of the biases in the world fit into these categories. And when this poster was written, I figured I might as well make it a visual because this is already still such a hard topic, but make it look really nice, and the poster came out of that. And with a friend of mine, John Manoogian. and he really helped make it look like something beautiful, like a work of art.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, it is and it hangs there and I’ve been wondering if it’s possible for me to get that as a sound wrap, like an acoustic panel, you know, and that’d be the visual so it serves a double duty.

Buster Benson
Oh, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
But, anyway, so thank you for that. It’s really cool. And I love some of those names, they’re funny. Some of them are crazy and some of them are intuitive, like the IKEA effect, it’s like, “Oh, that’s exactly what I think it would be.”

Buster Benson
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
“I spent all this time assembling something I think it’s worth more because I invest in that.” Is there a particular cognitive bias that shows up for you a lot still today even after all of your research and work?

Buster Benson
Well, that’s the thing is they don’t go away just because you know the name, unfortunately. Yes, so the confirmation bias is obviously one that really affects us today where we tend to not only prefer information that confirms us but, now, we’re actually also just only seeking out sources of information that confirm our biases. So, that’s an important one to think about.

There’s also the one called naïve realism which is really interesting and somewhat depressing, I guess, if you think about it too much. But it’s this idea that we think that what we think of people is what they’re actually thinking, and this happens a lot in conversations and debates and disagreements. We might say, like, “Oh, wait. I don’t understand why you think this.” And suddenly you brain is like, “Here’s a reason why they think it. It’s because they’re dumb,” and then we believe that, and that’s a strange bias that we do because we can’t read minds. We have to fill in the gaps there. But we could also ask the question to fill in the gaps, and especially if they’re right there in front of us. So, that really is on my mind recently.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. Well, and a perfect segue to your recently released book Why Are We Yelling: The Art of Productive Disagreement because I think that’s quite one way that things go sour real fast is if you say, “Well, the reason that person thinks that is because he or she is a moron, or a racist, or hates me.” That gets you into some trouble. So, maybe let’s zoom out a little bit and, say, sort of what’s the big idea behind your latest work here Why Are We Yelling and, yeah, let’s get oriented that way?

Buster Benson
Yeah. So, similar to the cognitive bias approach, I felt like there’s all these books about negotiation and rationality and persuasion that were really useful in particular context, like work, or sales, or debate in the courtroom, that kind of stuff. But there weren’t that many ways to really make it real for my everyday life. Like, what’s going to help me have a better conversation with my friend over a meal? What’s going to help me have better conversations as I’m going on a walk with my son? These things where we don’t have the tools, we haven’t been really taught how to have these conversations in a productive way.

And so, we resort to just these trial and error attempts, and some of us have luckily stumbled into the right approaches and some of us didn’t, and there’s no real way to help people develop that skill. So, that was my impetus for writing this, first, for myself, because I really need these skills and I want to synthesize it in a way that made sense to me, but also for other people because I feel like more and more these days we just feel stuck and frustrated with the way that our conversations are going.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d love it if, do you have any data that sort of tell that story? Like, I’m wondering if things sure seem nastier and more hostile these days and less productive in our disagreements, but do you have any proof?

Buster Benson
Yeah, there’s proof everywhere you look. So, depending on which avenue or domain of the world you want to look, there’s different ones. So, one of them I found is that, in a work setting, for example, which is one of the safest ones, 85% of people believe that they have some crucial information about the business, about the company, and they’re not talking about it because they don’t want to start an argument. And so that’s where conflict avoidance has really risen to the surface.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow! Woo, I’m sorry. That’s huge.

Buster Benson
That’s shocking, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That is just… that’s huge. I think that’s like the core of so much dysfunction right there, it’s like, “I’ve got some info and I’m not telling you not because I’m diabolically trying to sabotage anything but just because, oh, man, this is going to cause a big old argument. I don’t want to deal with it.”

Buster Benson
Yeah, if you don’t feel it’s a safe environment to have disagreements or you don’t know how to have them, you’re not going to move forward and you’re not going to have that conversation, and that’s just going to linger and get worse, and eventually pop up in some other person’s lap. And this happens not only at work but obviously also in the political sphere. We don’t necessarily think that we’re trying to go out there and solve problems, where we all know what the problems are, and we’re just unhappy about it and yelling about it.

I think there’s ways that we can move away from this conflict avoidance stance, which turned out to be way more common than the unproductive disagreement stance. Most people are not having that many unproductive disagreements. They’ve given up and that’s even worse in some senses in terms of like, “Well, if you’ve already given up, how do we get you back in the game so that we can actually work through these problems?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, do tell. How do we do that? So, you’re feeling like, “Oh, that’s just going to cause a big argument. I’m not even going to bring it up, not even going to go there.” What’s sort of the next step?

Buster Benson
Yeah. So, one of the first things we need to do is remember that other people are humans and other people are as complex as us. So, to do this, when we go into a situation where we’re feeling like, “I think that they aren’t as smart as I am, or I think they don’t get it,” that’s an opportunity to fill in the gaps with real information. So, having someone in front of you that has all these information and perspective is actually a blessing. You can ask them, “Tell me, I just don’t get how this works for you. Like, what’s the story? What’s the background? How did this happen? Help me get there. Help me see the world through your perspective,” just because that’s information that we don’t have, and until we have it, we just feel confused and baffled. And it’s frustrating. It doesn’t feel good.

So, use these people that you might normally think of as opponents or enemies as a source of information that can help you feel a little bit more relaxed about the world if you can understand their perspective better. And that’s really the first step is just think about, “What are the openings? What are the stories we can glean from each other in a safer setting to have a wider perspective of the world?” Not necessarily to change minds or anything, but just to see it from one more, a little bit higher on the plane of perspectives so that we can see, “This person exists because this happened to them and this is their story, and I’m like this because this happened to me, and I could see now why we both exist in the same world, and we both think we’re doing the right thing.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, so when you say, “How do you get here?” you don’t specifically mean, I don’t know, why you did the project a certain way, but, like, their whole life backstory, history picture.

Buster Benson
Yeah, we oftentimes resort to what are the facts, what are the evidence. The facts and evidence are there to prop up our story once we already have it for the most part. So, asking for that is really about continuing the information, bludgeoning, you find the gotcha information. The stories behind the facts are the real reason we believe things, and that’s what we should go after because those are rich. Those are really filled with interesting detail, they’re exciting to hear about, they’re new. And our brains are trained to really delight in hearing these kinds of stories. That’s why all of fiction is story-based, it’s not about, “Here’s more facts about the world.” Worldbuilders spend all the time telling you about the small details. You get bored real quick, you want the story, you want the plot.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, could you maybe give us some examples of what a rich backstory sounds like, and how it can color, shape and inform a position or an opinion, and how a different backstory would give rise to maybe a contrary opinion or view?

Buster Benson
Yeah, so I try to tackle gun control in one of the chapters and I tried a bunch of different things online and in person. What ended up working was having a salon or a potluck in my house and inviting a bunch of people that have different experiences with guns. And we went around the table and each shared their own personal story. There’s someone who was a former NRA member. There’s someone that had a bunch of assault rifles. There’s someone who just bought a shotgun, and there’s a bunch of people that have never fired a gun before. There are people that have had suicide in their family. There’s people that had violence in their family.

And so, just going around, and saying, “Oh, wait, I know some of you, I don’t know some of you, but I don’t know any of these stories.” And the variety was just so eye-opening just to begin with, and that was really great. But the interesting part came when we decided to figure out, “What’s a policy we can all come to? What policy we think is going to have the biggest impact on gun violence. And let’s come up with proposals and then we’ll tear them apart together just for fun and we’ll see where it goes. Because if we all have the answers, this should be easy.”

What ended up happening as we all went into small groups and came back and now had proposals, and they were all terrible ideas. We all found flaws instantly. And this was eye-opening not because we learned that we didn’t know a whole lot about this issue but the fact that, “Oh, wait, this is complicated. And my simplistic position on it going in is incorrect.”

And that’s not necessarily changing your mind, but saying, “Okay. Well, in order to really do justice to this problem, I’m going to have to really know a lot more than I currently do.” And that can be both exciting and, if that’s not what you want to do, you could be like, “Well, I don’t have time to do that, but I know that the answer is out there somewhere. I hope we can facilitate conversations because we don’t have the answers right now.” And that’s an example where I came in with a really narrow perspective and came out thinking, “Oh, wait. Yeah, this is more complicated than I thought. I shouldn’t feel as self-righteous about this as I did before.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I really appreciate that example, and I guess I’m always a little skeptical when some people seem to know everything about everything, it’s like, “You know…” Oh, I forgot who said that quote but it said, “Some people are more sure of everything than I am of anything.”

Buster Benson
That’s very true. That’s one of the biases, right? Overconfidence is a big chunk of them, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. So, that’s, well, in a way that’s a “call me an optimist.”  I mean, in a way, that’s sort of discouraging, like, “Oh, man, this problem is going to be not resolved quickly because of its difficulty and complexity, but my optimism says okay.” It sounds like some people had some epiphany, some awakening, some understanding about other people’s viewpoints and were enriched as a result by being able to engage in those conversations and, well, I don’t know if you’re editing the story, but it doesn’t sound like anyone just started screaming someone else’s head off and stormed out.

Buster Benson
No, definitely not. Having food there also helped a lot because food calms you down, it sort of regulates your blood pressure a little bit more, and there’s also this culture element, like, if you’re sharing food with someone, you sort of see them as a peer or as a member of your tribe more than if you’re shouting at them over Facebook comments or something like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so there’s one quick tip right there. Hey, food is handy. I guess I’m wondering what are sort of like the general principles such that we can disagree with folks and walk away sort of with our relationship, at least, not harmed but hopefully improved? I think that’s sort of challenging is folks believe and sometimes it’s true that, “Boy, if I go here and we argue about this, they’re going to respect you less, or I’m going to respect them less, or it’s going to get ugly in one way or another.” So, how do we not have that happen?

Buster Benson
Yeah, it’s intimidating because it is a hard skill to acquire and a hard skill to practice, and if we’re not aware of where our skills are, we’ll oftentimes put ourselves in situations that are above our skill level. And so that’s why I advocate, let’s just start with small steps and get better in safer places and then move into harder ones, more challenging ones.

So, one way to think about it is that we don’t need to answer every problem. We can think of the world as a bunch of problems that are happening, a bunch of different people that are out there. And what is the one, or the two, or the three, that we are most well-suited to really deeply immerse ourselves in, understand from the inside, and to proactively act on?

And the feeling of when things happen in the news, and you have the answer in your head, and you’re like, “Why doesn’t everyone just do this thing that’s obvious to me?” That feeling goes away when you start to understand some of the problems deeply and you can respect that there’s probably more complexity going on.

And, secondarily, it helps us propose that we do have unproductive disagreements more often because unless someone is thinking about this and working on it, nothing is going to happen and this problem is just going to get worse. So, this mix of, “What is going to help me feel better? What’s going to lower my anxiety about just watching the news, or reading the news, or having family dinners?” Part of that is just being okay with this ambiguity of like, “These problems are harder than I thought they were.” But also, what can we do to make each other better at having these conversations?

First, we have to know what that means for ourselves but, secondly, we have to respect each other and help people get there because nobody taught us this, we don’t learn this in school, we don’t learn it at work. Yeah, it’s something that we should all be better at.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, when it comes to developing these skills, I mean, what are some of the practices, or action steps, or things we should do to get them going?

Buster Benson
The easiest one just to begin with is just to want to do it. And I think it sounds sort of trite but we go about most of our day in a pre-reactive mode where we’re like, “Okay, this bad thing happened. I’m going to go attack that. This bad thing happened, I’m going to go attack that,” versus like, “Okay. Well, what would it take for me to just pay more attention to what my reactions to these things and to think about if I did the same over and over again, things aren’t going to get better, so let’s just pay attention to it.”

I say, like, starting a disagreement journal is a great way to do that, if you’re into journaling, or just like talking to yourself and going on a walk, and like, “Let’s go back in that conversation and think about where I went off the tracks, where the thing that triggered me made me change from one that’s like asking open questions to one that was more like defensive, or even insulting, or whatever it is, and see what was it that was important to me that got challenged?” And maybe even follow up with that person the next day and say, “Hey, remember that conversation we had? I realized after the fact that I felt a little bit threatened because this is a value I held. Do you have that value? Is this something that you are really thinking about? What is your perspective on that?” And you might be able to use that as a bridge because there might be something, “Well, yeah, of course, that’s important. But I was talking about this other thing, completely different from that topic. And I’m sorry for lashing out.”

And so, you can use this as a way to go back after the fact and repair that relationship, and then use it as a way to connect it and make sure that the next one is a little bit better because it’s really hard at the moment to know what to do until you’ve sort of reflected on things a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you’ve got, specifically, an eight-step process here to become better at productive disagreements. Could you give us perhaps a one-ish minute or less on each of these steps?

Buster Benson
Sure. So, there are eight of them. Each one of them is about summarizing a big field of work. So, the first one is watch how anxieties sparks. This is what we’ve been talking about mostly, like this mindfulness about that moment that you switch from the calm, curious, open person to the defensive, sort of protective person, and sort of really understand that, where that switch happens, and use that as a way to identify your own values.

Number two is to talk to your internal voices. We all have inherited these, some voices that are very authoritarian, some voices that are very calm and reasonable, and some voices that are like, “Screw this. I’m out, then I flip the table and leave,” and I call it, that’s the conflict avoidance one. And it’s different in each of our heads, and we oftentimes think these thoughts and then we speak them out loud. And so, our internal voices turn into external voices.

And to understand why we say things the way we do, we can sort of go back and think about, “Where does that voice come from? Who in my life am I mimicking in that voice? Do I still need it?” and think about that. That’s cognitive behavioral therapy and sort of the many-minds theory of like, “Oh, gee,” which is really interesting. It can help us tease apart, like, “These thoughts aren’t as necessary.”

Number three is developing honest bias which is sort of the further step past the poster you have. Not only like the what are the biases but what do we do with them? How can we use this information to have better conversations? And I think developing honest bias is the key here. Rather than trying to un-bias yourself, or point out the bias in other people, look for the damage that it does and repair that because that’s tangible, it’s practical, it’s right in front of you, it’s something that you can actually have impact on, versus trying to change the wiring in someone’s mind that’s going to be really, really hard and frustrating.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, to do that, are you just sort of identifying, like, “Hey, this is some things that show up for me in bias”? Or what are you doing exactly?

Buster Benson
Depending on what the situation is, you can say, like, in the work situation, we have this hiring flow that is biased towards candidates that come out of Ivy League colleges. Just fix that and say, like, “Okay, who knows who set that up and whose bias was the one that designed it?” But you can actually fix the process itself. The same goes for if you’re looking for a new job, you’re looking for a new place to live, or any decision that you’re trying to make, you can say, like, “Okay. Well, regardless of what my initial state is, I might seek out familiar things, or I might seek out a safe thing, or I might seek out the thing that makes me look the best.”

What options did you undervalue that you can add back onto the list before you make a decision? And so, there’s these 13 questions you can ask yourself about, like, “Am I favoring the bizarre, interesting, adventurous answers over the seemingly boring ones, even though the boring ones might be better answers for me?” and just add them back on the list, and then look at them altogether. So, you don’t have to change your bias, you can just fix the results of them.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Thank you.

Buster Benson
So, number four is speaking for yourself. This is one that we do all the time where we speak for others, right? So, we will say, “That party is doing this for these reasons,” or, “That person is evil because they think this.” Rather than doing that, try to invite them into the conversation and ask them to speak for themselves, and also share your perspective from your own stance rather than trying to imagine what they’re thinking. That’s sort of what we talked about at the very beginning.

And it’s a hard habit to break because, I know, speaking from experience, we are just so used to using group labels, and saying, “This group of people has this intention, is doing these things for these reasons,” and we don’t question where we got that from, because we obviously can’t read their minds, and we don’t talk to them a whole lot. So, how can we know? Let’s go ask them directly. It also shows that these groups aren’t as homogenous as we think they are. There’s a whole lot of variation in our own groups and there’s a whole other variation in the other groups, so you can find reasonable people on both sides.

Number five is asking questions that spark surprising answers. There’s a whole list of questions you can just put in your back pocket and pull out right when you’re feeling flooded, you’re like, “Okay. Well, I don’t know how to address this. Okay, I’m going to ask a question,” because we oftentimes tend to ask questions that are black and white but are very limited in possibilities, and we often already prejudged many of the answers to the questions we ask. So, those aren’t going to return a lot of information about the other person that could surprise you. So, open questions, where no matter what they say, it’s going to be interesting and surprising. I think that that’s a better approach, and we can just make a list of these and use them.

Pete Mockaitis
And could you give us one or two right now? I like that way of articulating it, asking questions that invites surprising answers. So, that’s even a little bit more than just not just yes or no, but it gets you thinking about even better questions. So, can you lay a couple on us?

Buster Benson
Yes. So, one that I use a lot is just like, “What am I missing about your perspective that would help me understand you better?” I like to say, “How has this belief been useful for you? Who do you admire?” All these questions are ways of pivoting into their perspective and seeing the world through their eyes, which is always surprising.

In fact, the more different, the more bizarre they are in terms of their worldview, the more surprising it’ll be. And this is a self-reinforcing system because if you do this once, and you get an interesting answer, you’re going to like it. It’s going to be entertaining and meaningful to you. You’re going to want to do it again. You’re going to now have more information to ask even more interesting questions. So, it builds on itself in a really great way.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is fun. I guess I’m thinking about things like, “What TV or movie character do you most sort of relate, connect, identify with?”

Buster Benson
Oh, exactly, yeah. There are so many ways to bring your own personality into the questions and ask the ones that you think has some overlap with you, because you can embed that shared interest in a question, and say, like, “Hey, we both like this story. Let’s talk about it,” and through that, talk about the world.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Very good. What’s next?

Buster Benson
So, sixth is to build arguments together, and this is an interesting one. It requires the other, speaking for yourself, asking questions that spark surprising answers, building arguments together means, “Let’s put aside whether or not your argument is right. Let’s just work on it together and make it as good as possible.” Because any argument, any position, has a best version of itself. Even something like the flat-earth theory of the world has a best argument for it.

And it’s interesting because by bringing yourself to this question, you can be creative, you can sort of start building something that you may never have thought about before. And flat earth is sort of, in the topic, but like to just illustrate the point, it’s just interesting to build that up and think about, “Okay. Well, I obviously have a lot of problems with this. I can help you address these. Like, let’s find the answers to all my questions, and then you’ll potentially will build up to a point that you can convince me from this argument, then that’s a win-win as well.”

So, it’s one way of just turning the conversation from combative to collaborative that can turn out to be really fun. You do have to have some trust built in there because you don’t want to come across as, like, “Oh, I’m going to go in and let’s play blocks and treat your argument as a game.” But assuming that you can pull it off in terms of like, “Yeah, I really do want to build this up for you, and I want the best person and the best people to represent your position so I understand it,” then it can lead to really interesting places.

Pete Mockaitis
Gotcha.

Buster Benson
Seven is cultivating neutral spaces. This is one of the hardest ones because think that arguments exists in the land of abstractions and ideas. Really, they exist in the world of words, sounds, body language, lighting, and power dynamics, and rooms, and sort of it’s really important to think about, “Which ideas are allowed on the table in this conversation? What are the power dynamics between us that maybe I’m not going to share everything because I know that if you don’t like it, you can fire me?” And then there’s also the question of, “Who can be in this conversation in the first place? Who can enter the room? Can I leave the conversation if I feel like it’s no longer being productive?”

It brings to the surface a lot of the power dynamics that have to happen. And these have a material impact on the success of the conversation. You can always turn something that’s really not a neutral space into something that’s more neutral. And we do this instinctively by saying, “Let’s go on a walk,” or, “Let’s go get dinner tomorrow,” or, “Let’s do something where the dynamic is different and the space feels a little better.”

Pete Mockaitis
Or if there’s sort of anonymous inputs in terms of we don’t know whose name is on that idea.

Buster Benson
Right. Exactly. And there’s people, you know, we don’t even see faces, or there’s no accountability, and people can drop in and drop out whenever they want. That’s another thing to consider especially online where these things happen, yeah.

And the last tip is to accept reality and then participate in it. And this is the most abstract one, but, really, it’s a call to this desire that we shouldn’t try to reject the world that exists and just refuse to participate in it until it is more likable. It is the way it is, and the only thing we can do is be a positive or a negative influence within it.

And I see disagreement as this opportunity for us all to say, “Okay, we’re not going to be unscathed, and we’re not going to be on the sidelines just critiquing all the bad things happening. Let’s get into the mix. Let’s be part of the solution. Let’s even be willing to be vulnerable and compromise in those situations and admit how we’re complicit in them,” because that’s the arena that these can be resolved in, and that’s really the way to participate in the most productive way.

So, this idea, like we can just exile, or censor, or ban all the things we don’t like is the opposite. Let’s bring everyone in and let’s figure it out.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so much good stuff here. And as you kind of walk through these eight, what really stuck with me, or struck me the most, is that “speak for yourself” bit. And I remember, this will be super quick, but, boy, when we were closing on our house, we had what we call split close where this other side was in a different room with their team and they were talking through the cellphone to, say, our lawyer. And there was this one point, like, “Oh, a little bit.”

And so, our lawyer was, say, “Well, hey, we would like this and that as a result of this,” and then she hangs up the phone and says, “Yeah, they basically say, yeah, they think this is a shakedown.” And then our real estate agent says, “A shakedown? For them to impute our integrity in this way,” and it was so funny, like they didn’t use the word shakedown. Our lawyer summarized for them using the word shakedown, and then the real estate agent took Umbridge at the words they never said, and I was just like, sometimes lawyers, not to point fingers, they come back and stuff happens.

Buster Benson
And this happens all the time, the tiny small steps can really derail a conversation so quickly, so quickly that we don’t even notice that it happened. So, yeah, that’s really a good example of just how easy it is to go on the wrong direction. But there are ways to notice them and say, “Okay. Well, let’s hear it from them. Can we just confirm that this is what’s happening?” because there’s more to be gained by a positive outcome for everyone than to just leave the conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
And, speaking of that, well, I guess a shakedown is probably not one of them. But I want to get your take on some common phrases that can show up in arguments that tend to make things unproductive in a hurry and show up a lot, and some superior alternatives to those.

Buster Benson
Yeah, and there are just so many. Choose a genre of conversation that we can tease apart a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. We are professionals in a workplace considering what is the best option to complete an objective in terms of, “Should we invest in A, B, C, or D?”

Buster Benson
Right. Okay, so many things there, yeah. One of them you might be familiar to is, “Let’s take this offline,” is a really, really common one in the world of, okay, that just basically means, “There’s too many people in the room. We want to have this decision between a smaller group of people. And I’m going to decide who those people are.” That’s unproductive. I think that there are ways to identify the goal instead of just saying that the entire conversation should be taken offline. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with that. But there’s also, let’s see…

Pete Mockaitis
That makes a lot of sense in terms of it’s quite a power grab, really.

Buster Benson
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay. You can just unilaterally declare that these topics are not going to be discussed here and, apparently, at an arbitrary later time with a group of people to be determined, it may or may not be discussed. Thanks.

Buster Benson
Yeah. And it is a tool that works but it’s also a tool that’s slightly dysfunctional if it’s misused. So, I think that a lot of these tools, they have good intentions. They’re like, “Okay. Well, we’re not ever going to go around the room and get everyone’s opinion, and then figure out what this is going to be”  because we think that that’s the only other option. But there are ways to move fast and make decisions and include people at the same time. It’s not a tradeoff you have to make, as much as it feels like that in the moment sometimes.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s great. And do you have, could you share, what are your favorite approaches for pulling that off?

Buster Benson
Yeah. So, I was thinking of, as a product leader, I have many projects where your team is spending months working on something, and at the very last minute, the leadership is like, “Oh, I don’t know about this. Have you considered this possible downside?” And usually you have but you only have a very limited amount of time to talk about this. And so, this can turn a project from launching to taking months and months and months.

And then they’re like, “Let’s talk to more people. Let’s take this offline. Let’s revisit this in a month,” or whenever. One way around that is to say, “Okay. Well, let’s just go through worst case and best case scenarios of this so that we can mitigate those possibilities that are bad and sort of look forward to the ones that are good,” because then they’re heard. You can say, like, “I think the worst-case scenario is that all of our advertisers, they’re going to leave, or our users are going to revolt.” And they can say, “Okay. Well, here is how we’ll know if that’s happening. We’re going to launch it with a smaller group of people. We’re going to roll it out slowly. And if this starts happening, we’re going to stop. But we’re going to start going and find out if that’s true or not.”

So, trimming it from like, “Is this going to be a problem?” to, “Let’s find out if it’s a problem as quickly as possible, and keep the ball moving forward,” can save months and months of time in a lot of situations.

And that could be used in a lot of situations where people are risk-averse and feel like they don’t want to move forward until they feel more confident. But the way you feel more confident is by learning, and so there’s ways to make a prediction, “Let’s learn, let’s move forward. And if it turns out that I’m right, great. If it turns out that you’re right, we’ve learned something. Either way it’s going to be okay and we’re both going to win.” So, that’s really one of the simplest ways to move things forward.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And, quickly, I also want to get your take on is there any best practices, approaches, or tips you’d suggest for when we’re disagreeing with our boss or someone who outranks us?

Buster Benson
Yeah. So, I always like to turn it into, “What would the evidence be of…?” especially with power dynamics, there’s like, “Do this,” right? And you’re like, “Oh, but that’s a bad idea,” or, “I don’t want to do that,” or, “I’m not good at that,” or sometimes it’s a judgment saying, “You’re not good at this,” or, “You’re not the right person for this,” or, “Your promotion is not going to happen.” Those kinds of things, that are really about a judgment of the worth of something, sometimes you, sometimes your work.

The way to turn that into productive disagreement is to say, like, “Okay. What would you see in the world if I was performing at a higher quality? Or what evidence would there be if I was ready for a promotion? Or how do you see it?” Just so it turns it from something that’s a judgment call into something that can be found in the world. And that’s also a great way to summarize what they’re really trying to say, which is like, they’re going to ultimately going to use signals in the world to make decisions, and it brings clarity to that.

So, turning it from something subjective to objective, saying that in the future if you had done these three things, or if you had spoken for the company and those things that happened, then I would sort of think that you’re prepared for the next step. Versus, like, “Oh, you’ll know when you see it,” or, “I’ll let you know,” kind of thing which is really vague, ambiguous, and can only increase your anxiety over time.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Buster, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Buster Benson
Yeah. So, the last thing I’ll say is that the real challenge here is not to solve all disagreements, be like a perfect disagree-r, but just to have one or two to experience what that’s like, how enjoyable they can be, what it’s like to actually use disagreement to connect, what it’s like to actually learn a bigger perspective through disagreement, because if we can feel that feeling and sort of see that as the antidote to the anxiety we feel, then we could begin to expect it from our leaders, from our politicians, and the world more broadly, because right now we just don’t expect a whole lot from people because we haven’t experienced it for ourselves. So, taking baby steps and saying, “Okay. I just want to feel this and sort of see it in other people as well,” in the long run is the challenge here, and my hope that this sort of brings out.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Well, now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Buster Benson
So, not to be too trite, but, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” is a Gandhi quote, but I think that that is one that has really influenced my approach to the world. It goes back to this accepting and participating. Don’t just be the critic. Be in the mix. Get all messy in the mud and get something done. If that’s what you want everyone else to do, then you got to do it too.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study, or experiment, or bit of research?

Buster Benson
In the news recently, I saw that this Stanley Milgram experiment has been debunked, which is really interesting to me. The interesting thing I think with experiments that I love the ones that had been falsified just because it helps us understand science as an evolving process. And one of the worst biases out there is publication bias where we only look at the studies that sound good as a headline, and that can sort of validate something about our lives.

So, I love any experiment that feels like it should be right that gets disproven just to add a little bit of that complexity back into our conversation. So, we can’t just listen to what feels good in our studies. So, Stanley Milgram is the prisoner experiment is going to be one that I would recommend reading or listen to, but the fact that it was revised and that we’re now questioning this is really interesting to me.

Pete Mockaitis
We’re talking about the authority with the shocks?

Buster Benson
Yeah, the one where you would zap people until they were basically dead because you’re the authority.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I want to see the latest on this. Thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Buster Benson
Favorite book right now. There is this book by Jenny Odell called How to Do Nothing, and it is just a delightful book that is both meditative and practical and rich in imagery in stories and stuff. She talks about how to live in a world where everything is trying to make us more productive, including my book, and how to just maintain integrity and dignity in that sort of high-pressure environment.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Buster Benson
My pen and paper are the ones that I go by the most. To add something a little bit more quirky, I’ve been really interested in the art of tarot decks recently, and I’ve been using this as a way to add symbolism and interesting this to my life.  We just have these tendencies to get into these routines and ruts where things can get really dry and sort of abstract.

Bringing back art into our work is really important to just remember that there’s a creative force that goes into the things that we do. Not necessarily advocating for the pseudoscience of tarot but I’m saying that just seeing the magician and the empress and the hanging man next to your desk, and say, “Okay, yeah. We live in a really rich world,” has been really helpful for me.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit that helps you be awesome at your job?

Buster Benson
So, my favorite habit is private journaling. I’ve been doing this for a long time. It’s morning pages, Julia Cameron wrote a book called The Artist’s Way. It’s like this brain dump. Anytime that my brain is tangled up and I’m not into open question, I’ll just type furiously until all the knots get worked out. And it’s been a really, really helpful tool for me over the years to figure that out through that because, otherwise, you need to go on a long walk or ask someone out to coffee and talk about it. But this is a way that’s always handy and you can always use it to figure something out for yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Buster Benson
BusterBenson.com is my website, there’s all kinds of weird things, and @buster on Twitter is where I live on the internet.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Buster Benson
Yeah. Have one proactive disagreement about something that you feel is important, and don’t keep it bottled up, and see how it goes. And be patient with yourself if it didn’t go right the first time.

Pete Mockaitis
Buster, this has been a lot of fun. Thanks. And keep on having some lovely productive disagreements.

Buster Benson
Thank you so much. It has been a joy.

518: Why to Never Go With Your Gut with Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

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Dr. Gleb Tsipursky explains why we often make disastrous decisions—and how to make smarter ones.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The biggest decision-making mistake people make
  2. Three handy debiasing techniques
  3. Five questions to guide everyday decisions

About Gleb

Known as the Disaster Avoidance Expert, Dr. Gleb Tsipursky protects leaders from disasters by developing the most effective decision-making strategies via his consulting, coaching, and training firm Disaster Avoidance Experts. A cognitive neuroscientist and behavioral economist, Dr. Tsipursky writes for Inc., Time, and CNBC. A best-selling author, his new book, available on Amazon and in book stores everywhere, is Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Gleb Tsipursky Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Gleb, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Gleb Tsipursky
Thank you so much for inviting me, Pete. It’s a pleasure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to learn all about you have an interesting brand for your business. It’s called Disaster Avoidance Experts. Tell us, first of all, what do you mean by disaster? What are we avoiding here?

Gleb Tsipursky
Any sort of things that seriously impact your bottom line in a negative way. Now, that might mean things like having a key employee leave, or having your website crash unexpectedly, or lacking a succession plan as I mentioned before. Let’s say, what happens if you have a disability and you can’t work for a while. What happens then? If your key client leaves and you’re really dependent on that client, that’s a problem. So, that’s one area of disaster, things that seriously impact your bottom line in a negative way.

Another area of disaster which people think about less, but just as impactful, is when you don’t take advantage of opportunities. So, let’s say your competitor goes bankrupt and you have all your money and resources devoted to your current business plan, that means you can’t take advantage of the competitor’s bankruptcy to get their employees, key employees on board with you. You can’t take advantage of your competitor’s bankruptcy to get their clients if all of your money and resources are devoted to something else.

Or other sort of opportunities to open up, let’s say the political situation. You know, you have some tariffs going on so people are changing their supply chains and you have an opportunity to be their new supplier but you’re already locked into contracts that keep you with others, with people you’re currently supplying to. That’s another problem. So, people don’t think about missing opportunities as disasters but they could be just as disastrous as threats. So that’s what I mean by disasters.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, I’m intrigued then, what in your client experience would you estimate is the biggest disaster that you’ve helped somebody avoid?

Gleb Tsipursky
Oh, the biggest disaster. Well, that’s a tough one because it really depends on how you think about jobs or careers. I do a lot of coaching for executives which includes coaching on their careers. So, I’ll give you an example. There was this executive who was thinking about making a job switch to create an enterprise, to be a startup leader, and we talked through the situation. He was excited. He wanted to make the jump. We talked through the situation kind of what was he excited about, what were his long-term plans.

And what we discovered was that he was excited about the idea of a startup, he was excited about kind of the financial potential of a startup, the impact on the world. But when I talked to him about, “Hey, do you know what it’s like to work in a startup? Have you ever worked in that environment?” it turned out that he wasn’t really prepared for the chaos and stress of that is involved in a startup, and especially the failures.

When you start up a business and entrepreneurial in you knows, you have a ton of failures, not the whole business itself, but when you’re trying to figure things out, how your system is going to work, how your processes are going to work, who are going to be your clients. He really wasn’t prepared for that. He was very much a perfectionist and he took failure poorly so he really wasn’t prepared for the chaotic entrepreneurial nature of a startup and especially a failure, so he decided not to go for it. He stayed in corporate America and spent the rest of his career there. He was quite happy and he would’ve been very stressed out if he went for a startup. So, that’s one example with a personal career move.

Now, another career, another situation would be with a company. There was a company that I was consulting with which was a midsized manufacturing company here in the Midwest about 2,000 people, and they were going to buy another company of about 1500 people, another mid-sized manufacturing, this time in the Southwest. And so, what happened was that they really were excited about buying it. They looked at the company. They looked at the company’s financials; the financials looked good. They looked at the company’s products; the products looked good. They would fulfill a gap that the buying company currently had.

But what they didn’t think about, they didn’t really think about the internal systems and processes of this company, the company culture. Now, I worked with a company that was my client for a while to get their internal culture more team-oriented and more flat, less hierarchical. But the company that they were going to buy was much more hierarchical and its culture was much more hierarchical top down, and its internal systems and processes were much more hierarchical top down, so, honestly, they would’ve really clashed in a really bad and harmful way.

And I’ve seen companies, I mean, if you think about mergers and acquisitions, you look at the research on this topic, about 80% of mergers and acquisitions fail. So, this would’ve definitely been one of those 80% that failed, and I’m very thankful that my client decided to avoid that merger and went and stepped away from it. So, those are two disasters that I helped leaders and businesses avoid.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, I’d love to hear then, in terms of humans and decision-making, what have been some of the most striking discoveries you’ve made about how we go about decision-making and often poorly?

Gleb Tsipursky
I think the most important thing that I have discovered, and I have been doing this, just to be clear, for over 20 years in consulting, coaching, training and decision-making, so I’ve been doing this for a while. I’ve also went into high academia. I researched this topic. I’m a cognitive scientist and behavioral economist, that’s where my research is, and research level doing peer-reviewed research.

What I found was that, really surprising and very bothersome, was that people very much tend to go with their gut, with their intuitions, what they feel is what they do. So, they equate the feeling of rightness and correctness and intuitiveness, “This is the right thing to do. I feel it in my gut.” They equate that with truth and the rightness and what’s best for their bottom line, what’s best for their long-term goals, and that’s terrible.

Our gut evolved for the savannah environment. It’s evolved for small tribes of 15 people to 150 people, and the saber-toothed tiger-response when we need to flee from a saber-toothed tiger. That’s what our gut is adapted for. We are the descendants of those who jumped at a hundred shadows and successfully avoided that one saber-toothed tiger. In our current environment, that’s really bad to jump at a hundred shadows. We get so much stress, so much problems, there are so many people who are anxious and depressed because of these excessive reactions from our gut. But people still trust their gut, they trust their feelings, they trust their intuitions, and they make really bad mistakes as a result.

The most fundamental thing I convey to my clients that has helped them so much is to distance themselves from this feeling of rightness, from this feeling of comfort. When you have comfort, when you’re comfortable about a decision, that’s the time to most suspect your decision because you’re often going to make the most wrong decision when you feel most comfortable with it. It’s counterintuitive but that’s the civilized thing to be, just like it’s counterintuitive to eat with our fork and knife. We had to learn how to eat with forks and knives. Now, it would be very weird if we don’t eat fish and steak with your fork and knife, but that’s something you had to learn to do. But we still make decisions as though we eat with our hands.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. So much there. I think that makes a lot of sense, is to know there’s a wide distinction between the feeling of rightness and truth. And often, when you’re the most comfortable, that is not an indicator that it’s right, and especially if in the sense when you’re trying to do something new and different and challenging, or that sort of stretches you in some way, it’ll naturally be uncomfortable. So, I guess I’m wondering then, so are you saying then that intuition has no place? Or how would you contextualize and position intuition in the scheme of decision-making?

Gleb Tsipursky
So, intuition is a complex concept, and we need to separate two things here. We have to separate gut reactions which have to do with our evolved tribal intuitions, and that’s kind of coming from our instinct, from our savage primitive environment. That’s when we were babies and we responded to things. That’s intuition, that’s inborn, that’s genetics, and that’s really, really harmful in the modern world.

In a modern business environment, you don’t want to use the genetic, inborn intuition, that tribal response where you think, where you look at a person, and if the person seems like that person is like you, you will like that person much more. That’s the halo effect where we tend to like other people who look like us, who think like us, who feel like us, who have our color, our skin color, and someone who have our politics, our value sets. That’s very dangerous. And, of course, we don’t like people who don’t have that. That’s called the horns effect.

Now, in the current business environment, it’s very bad to use this tribal sensibility to make decisions because then you’ll hire other people, let’s say you’re a business leader, you’ll hire other people who are like you, and then you’ll be making very bad decisions because you’ll be all thinking alike and you won’t question each other’s decisions. Same thing if you’re a solopreneur, you’ll be collaborating with other people who are like you and you will not be getting the huge benefit of collaborating with different people. So, that’s kind of one area where you want to very much be aware of these inborn intuitions.

Now, where intuitions are helpful. Here’s an area where they’re helpful. They’re helpful where you have learned overtime to make good, quick, effective decisions. For example, right now, pretty much any professional has learned how to look for their email and quickly separate the spam from the quality email. You don’t need to think about that for a long time, you just say, “Okay, this looks like spam.” Leaders, people who are in leadership positions, have learned how to organize judgment and decision-making, delegation effectively. How could you delegate effectively to other people? You can do that effectively now but that’s a learned habit.

Now, people who have been working effectively for a long time have learned good productivity and organization systems. They’re really productive. They know how to do that. But, again, they had to learn these things. So, now they feel intuitive just like eating with your fork and knife feels intuitive. But what they are is healthy learned mental habits. It’s kind of like driving a car. You have to learn how to drive a car. It took a lot of time. It took a lot of effort. I remember driving, learning how to drive a car myself. I failed my first driving test. I couldn’t pass it the first time. Now I can drive a car very easily and it feels like I’m driving on autopilot, which feels like I’m using my intuition, but what I’m actually using is healthy learned mental habits. So you want to differentiate those savage primitive instincts from those healthy learned civilized mental habits, that natural state to the civilized state.

And so, the intuition is useful when you’ve been doing the same thing in a specific domain for a long time and you’ve been correct there. What you don’t want to do is apply to new domains. So, for example, many business owners trust their ability to hire people based on interviews. They have someone come in, they talk to this person, they hire this person or not. Extensive research has shown that that’s a terrible decision, that’s really bad strategy for hiring people because they don’t have enough experience in hiring people. They don’t really know how to do it effectively and some people might be offended by it when I say that, but, hey, I’m just telling you what the research shows.

Another area is when you sell your business. When people are selling their business, they make many, many, many mistakes because they haven’t done this before, and they haven’t done this often. Same thing in mergers and acquisitions, they haven’t done this often so they don’t know what to watch out for. So, any new area, anything you haven’t done before, anything important and significant, anything emotionally salient, anything that really pulls at your emotions, you want to be especially aware of and not use your intuitions.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess I’m curious in particular about intuition when it comes to, let’s say, the matter of trusting another person. You know, it seems like they have a proposal for you, maybe it’s a business-related thing in terms, hey, there’s this new vendor. They can provide this thing at this price and they seem to have all the right answers and check the right boxes based on your criteria but there’s just something inside you that says, “You know what, I kind just don’t trust this guy. I think he’s going to not deliver the goods.” Is that a particular type of intuition and what’s your take on that one?

Gleb Tsipursky
Yeah, that’s bad. If you don’t know this person for a long time, it’s likely that it’s your tribal intuitions. If this guy is a slick salesman, and he’s able to sell you it’s because it’s a famous salesperson technique to make it look like and appear like he is similar to you. They try to mimic you, they try to use your wording, so this person is most likely just not a very good salesperson and doesn’t fit your idea of what it looks like your tribal member should be. So, you don’t want to trust your instincts around new people.

This is going to offend a lot of people. It already has. The research shows it offended a lot of people, and it’s okay. I’m just telling you what the research says. You shouldn’t trust your instincts around new people. You need to look at that person and say, “Hey, is this person any way significantly different from me, different in race, ability, gender, sociality, politics, the way this person speaks, this person’s background?”

I’ll give you an interesting example. So, I was doing a presentation for over a hundred HR professionals at a diversity inclusion conference here in Columbus, Ohio. And Columbus, Ohio is, of course, famous as the home of the Ohio State Buckeyes, our football team, “Go, Bucks!” and it’s very, very popular around here. So, our big rival is the University of Michigan up north, the Wolverines, not very popular around here.

Pete Mockaitis
“Yeah, those Michigan people.” I went to the University of Illinois. It’s fun to hate people who went to Michigan. No offense, Michigan listeners.

Gleb Tsipursky
There you go. Well, let’s hate Michigan, I agree.

Pete Mockaitis
Not everybody but some of them are really obnoxious so you got to stick it to them. Please continue.

Gleb Tsipursky
I know, I’m joking. But, anyway, what I asked these HR professionals who are leaders in diversity inclusion here in Columbus, Ohio was, “Hey, would you hire somebody who’s a University of Michigan fan?” So, out of those hundred people only three people indicated that they would hire a University of Michigan fan, and these are experts in diversity inclusion. They would not hire a Michigan fan. Just because that person is a Michigan fan that would exclude that person from hiring, so that shows you the importance of tribalism in something so, you know, I mean, everyone likes to hate a Michigan fan but, honestly, it’s kind of a trivial thing which is extremely rude for. It’s just about which team. It doesn’t really matter for your work performance.

Pete Mockaitis
Maybe in that context, I wonder if they were sort of afraid to raise their hand because people would look at them and go, “Ugh!”

Gleb Tsipursky
No, no, I mean, that’s indicative, that’s why they wouldn’t hire this person, right, because they know that other people would be like, “Why the heck did you hire this University of Michigan fan at their job?”

Pete Mockaitis
I would hire them and tell them not to let people know that they’re a Michigan fan.

Gleb Tsipursky
It’s not a viable scenario. It’s not a scenario we should have, but that’s the way our brains work. So, just because someone is from the University of Michigan. So we should not trust our intuitions about new people. That’s the critical important thing.

What you want to do if this is a new person, you want to bring in someone quite different from yourself if you are kind of serious about using this person as a new vendor, and use this external trusted advisor to evaluate this person and see what they say.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yeah, that makes sense in terms of, you know, and then the intuition still is serving a function. It has given you some bit of information which may be confirmed or denied, and that probes you to go a little further in your investigation versus if they weren’t there, you might be like, “All right, we’re good to go. No need.”

Gleb Tsipursky
And that’s something to be afraid of also because if this person is a slick salesperson and sells you a bill of goods, if you feel very comfortable with this person, you want to step back and see if this person is using typical salesman techniques like copying you, mimicking you, echoing you. These are techniques that you can learn about and protect yourself from. But if you don’t know, if you just go with what’s comfortable for you, and you don’t protect yourself from this comfort feeling techniques, then you will be sold the bill of goods.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Okay. So, that’s handy. Well, then let’s talk now about cognitive bias. First, could you define that for listeners who are not familiar with the term? And then list out just a couple of what you’ve observed to be the most pervasive and disastrous cognitive biases in the workplace.

Gleb Tsipursky
So, cognitive biases are mistakes that we make because of how our brain is wired. A lot of it is due to our heritage. Like I mentioned before, tribalism, the flight or fight response. Other aspects are due to just our information processing is imperfect, just the way we process information, our brain is far from perfect, and so that is why we have systematic errors that cause us to deviate away from the perfect decision-making.

So, the perfect decisions are decisions that most benefit in the workplace, so just in the workplace, most benefit your bottom line. In other life spheres, it’s going to be decisions that most benefit your life goals or your professional goals, or whatever goals you have. So, that’s the perfect decisions, the ones that can give you the most benefit. Cognitive biases are systematic errors that cause us to deviate away from these perfect decisions. I gave you an example before already of the halo effect and the horns effect. Another cognitive bias that a lot of people get struck by very problematically is called the planning fallacy.

The planning fallacy is an interesting one because it’s where we tend to assume that everything will go according to plan. We invest a lot of resources. I mentioned before what are disasters. Disasters are when we don’t anticipate the risks and when we don’t anticipate opportunities. So, we invest all resources into our plan, and when problems happen or opportunities happen, we don’t have enough resources to take care of them, and we don’t anticipate, we don’t look for these opportunities or threats in advance, and we are unable to address them because of that. So, that’s the planning fallacy.

And you’ll often hear the phrase “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Again, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” This is a common phrase. It’s very common, just like “Go with your gut” is a common phrase. They’re both wrong. They’re both problems. You don’t want to go with your gut and you don’t want to think that failing to plan is planning to fail, because our plans, we tend to make perfect plans. So, what you want to think about is never go with your gut and, for the other one, you want to think “Failing to plan for problems is planning to fail.”

Again, failing to plan for problems is planning to fail. What you want to do is plan for what kind of problems might come up and address these problems in advance. And the same thing for opportunities. What kind of opportunities might come up and address these opportunities in advance, as well as reserve some resources for unexpected threats and unexpected opportunities, so that’s the planning fallacy, that’s one.

Another one that a lot of business leaders run into is overconfidence bias. Overconfidence bias is our tendency to be way too confident about our decisions. And, honestly, the higher up a leader is, the more experienced somebody is, the more they tend to be confident and the more biased they tend to be, the more excessively confident they tend to be. Not everyone, but this is the general tendency.

So, for example, we found research that if somebody says, “I’m 100% confident about this. Yes, I’ll bet the company on this. I’ll bet my career on this.” They’re only going to be right about 80% of the time.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, interesting. Those who say, “I’m 100% sure about this,” are right 80% of the time.

Gleb Tsipursky
That’s correct and that’s horrible because they lose the company and they lose their careers, so 20% of the time, so this is very dangerous for people who say they’re 100% confident definitely in this thing, just because of the way our brain works. So, we have to be very careful to develop a sense of humility, and this is really important. Humility is such an underappreciated business emotion. We need to be able to have this sense of humility, have this sense of, “Oh, hey, I might be wrong, and it’s okay. Let me step back and let me evaluate this situation. Let me be less confident than I intuitively am. Let me ask others for strategies.”

My book Never Go With Your Gut goes for a whole bunch of strategies that you can use to evaluate the situation, address threats, seize opportunities. So, you want to be more humble, and that is one of the critical emotions that you want to develop in order to get yourself to use these strategies effectively.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you’ve got a number, a dozen, of de-biasing techniques. Could you share what’s perhaps the most one or two powerful or efficient means of really helping remove some bias and improving the decision-making of every professional?

Gleb Tsipursky
Well, I’ll share a very quick one, and then some more complex ones. The quickest one is counting to ten. Your mom probably told you, “Count to ten before you do something emotional, especially when you’re angry.” And that actually works. The recent research has shown that counting to ten, delaying your decision-making works quite effectively for day-to-day decisions. That’s really one good useful strategy that you can effectively deploy. Counting to ten, taking the time to think about it at least for 10 seconds before day-to-day decisions. So, that’s one.

Another one that many people don’t use but it’s incredibly helpful is making predictions about the future. Again, making predictions about the future. Let’s say you are in a meeting of the C suite, and people are saying, “Hey, this product will go great,” or, “This product will not be good at all that you’re about to launch.” Have everyone make a prediction, have everyone make, “Hey, here’s how I think it will do in the next 6 months,” and make sure that you check back on what happened 6 months ago, that way you’ll calibrate.

How well do you think your business, if you’re a solopreneur, is going to do? Or, if you’re the business leader, how well do you think it’s going to do? How well the specific aspects of your business, how well as they going to do? How well is the client, a specific client, going to be with you? How much will they order? Thinking about these things. Make predictions about the future and then check yourself, and you will slowly improve your ability to make good decisions because you’ll calibrate yourself over time. So, that’s another one that I want to mention.

And another one that I think is incredibly important is to get an outside view, or have an external perspective. Step back from your current context. So, people tend to be greatly overconfident, business leaders especially tend to be very optimistic. I’m an optimist myself. I tend to be too optimistic. I think the grass is greener on the other side of the hill, things are less risky than they seem. However, what’s really helpful for that optimism and overconfidence is stepping back and say, “Hey, if somebody else was launching a product just like that, how do you think it would work? What is the typical situation for mergers and acquisitions?”

So, a typical situation for mergers and acquisitions is that 80% fail. So, if you’re going through a merger and acquisition, you shouldn’t think that you are better than all the other business leaders who’ve gone into mergers and acquisitions. You should assume that the most likely situation, four out of five times you’ll fail, so you have to really work hard to make sure that your specific merger or acquisition is going to be so extremely good that it overcomes this very, very high typical rate of very smart people. I mean, business leaders who do mergers and acquisitions are pretty smart people, and you have to make sure that it will not fail and it overcomes a pretty high barrier. So, those are three things that I would share with people.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And so, you also spent a period of time discussing our human tendency to try to minimize loss. And so, what’s going on there and what should we do about that?

Gleb Tsipursky
Yes, so we as human beings tend to minimize loss, and that is a big problem because we don’t look sufficiently at gains, and this is a tendency called loss aversion. So, for example, when somebody, let’s say, has invested their money, and loss aversion, the tendency to minimize loss is there are a couple of cognitive biases around that.

So, for example, when somebody has invested money into some project, let’s say, I was working with a client who invested 2.5 million into a manufacturing project. And the client was really reluctant to look at the situation and see the external environment changed. It actually changed because of the recent tariffs, and there was nothing nearly as much demand for the product anymore because of the changing supply chains. And I was helping this client, I was pointing out the situation, and he was really reluctant to let go of his vision of the future. So, he didn’t want to lose this. He didn’t want to lose his vision of the future because he invested a lot of emotions and he felt a lot of positive emotions over it, and he didn’t want to perceive himself as someone who made a mistake, as someone who’s a loser. So, that’s one of the worst emotions for business leaders.

When I do trainings for business leaders, and I talk these examples, “What are you most afraid of?” Failure is probably the biggest, biggest most common thing I hear about. People don’t want to be perceived failing, they don’t want to be perceived as losers, so they are trying to do a lot of things to avoid these losses, and they throw a lot of good money after that. So, he kept going quite a bit longer with that project than he should’ve. Eventually, he got out of it, fortunately. But that was a pretty bad investment. At the time he made it, it wasn’t really terrible but he put quite a bit more money into it than he should have. And that’s a tendency that’s called sunken cost where we tend to sink too much money, too much resources after previous resources we have made because we don’t want to feel like losers, and we don’t want to lose these initial resources.

What’s much more effective, the strategy to address this loss aversion, this sunken cost is to say, “Hey, okay, these resources, they’re lost. Let them go. Just from the situation where you are right now, what is the best decision to make for your long-term goals, whatever your long-term goals are in this professional activity, let’s say, for your bottom line?” The same thing applies to personal life, in relationships. So many people sink a lot of their time, resources, into relationships that really aren’t going to work out that they should’ve cut off a long time ago. So, that’s a common thing that happens in relationships unfortunately.

So, you want to be thinking about, “Hey, ignoring the previous investments, what’s the situation now?” Because of your previous investments, you might feel bad about them, but it doesn’t really matter from that perspective. You want to think about your current position. And from your current position, what kind of steps do you want to take to maximize your long-term future returns in all life areas? And so, that’s a strategy that you can use to address loss aversion.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Gleb, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Gleb Tsipursky
One of the things I want to mention, to make sure is that there are techniques that people can use to very effectively and quickly address their decision-making problems that we all tend to have, and these are five questions that you can use to avoid decision disasters. So, here are the five questions that you should use for everyday decision-making, and you can even use them for major decision-making when you don’t have time to do a more thorough technique.

First, “What important information did I not yet fully consider?” You want to especially look for information that goes against your comfort levels, that goes against your intuitions because this will tend to hide the kind of problematic aspects of your decisions. So, you look at information that goes against your intuitions especially.

Second, “What dangerous judgment errors, cognitive biases have I not yet addressed?” In my book, Never Go With Your Gut goes over the 30 most dangerous ones. Third, and I mentioned this before the program, “What does a trusted and objective advisor suggest that I do?” So, imagine a little bit little Pete on your shoulder, and think about, “What would Pete suggest that you do?” Or somebody else that you trust who’s an objective advisor to you. Now, those are the first three questions that have to do with making a decision.

We’re transitioning into the last two questions about preventing failure and optimizing success in implementing the decision. First, “How have I addressed all the ways this decision can fail?” Again, “How have I addressed all the ways this decision can fail?” Think about all the potential problems, realistic problems you can anticipate, and address them in advance. And the same thing for opportunities.

Finally, “What new information would cause me to revisit this decision?” Again, “What new information would cause me to revisit this decision?” You really should make this information identified as in advance of implementing the decision because in the heat of the decision-making implementation, you will tend to run into situations where you want to, “Oh, maybe I should change my mind. Maybe I should revisit the decision.” It’s much more effective if you already decided what would cause you to revisit the decision or rethink things in advance.

Pete Mockaitis
What I also love about that question, “What new information would cause me to revisit this decision?” is it can reveal your sort of, I guess, one-track mind, obsessed, like, “If the answer is nothing. This is what we must do.” It’s like, “Oh, that’s probably a red flag that there should be something that could possibly cause you to revisit it. And if nothing comes to mind, we’re probably not done thinking about it yet.”

Gleb Tsipursky
Yup, you’re not thinking about it straight is the problem, that pretty much any decision can be and should be revisited if you have specific information. And if you can’t falsify this decision, that you can’t falsify this choice, if you can’t say, “Hey, this would make me change my mind,” then you’re probably way too overcommitted to this decision

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Gleb Tsipursky
Sure. I really like Ben Franklin’s quote that “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That’s a very insightful quote, and it’s something that I live by, and I encourage everyone that I meet to live by because we tend to spend way too much time dealing with disasters as opposed to preventing them in advance.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite study, or experiment, or a piece of research?

Gleb Tsipursky
I really like a study where, and this was a good study, I don’t know from which university it was done, let’s say it was Ohio State, where a bunch of students were given a math test as an experiment. They were paid for the math test, and they were paid for how many questions they would get right on the math test, and they were given the opportunity to score themselves. So, everyone in the Ohio State was given the math test, and then there was one student who was obviously cheating, very obviously, very clearly cheating.

And this student, in one set of experiments, was wearing an Ohio State uniform, so he’s kind of part of the tribe. And at that set of experiments, many, many other students cheated, a whole bunch of other students cheated. Now, in another set of experiments, that student who was wearing a University of Michigan uniform…

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, those cheaters from Michigan. That sounds about right.

Gleb Tsipursky
Yeah, exactly. And pretty much nobody else was cheating at that experiment.

Pete Mockaitis
So, no one else ended up cheating. They were not influenced by the outsider.

Gleb Tsipursky
Yeah, nobody else. Influenced by tribalism. The first experiment where this person wore an Ohio State uniform, it’s like, “Oh, my tribe is cheating, therefore, this is a good thing. Therefore, this is appropriate.” The second set of experiment is the enemy is cheating, “No, we will not cheat. We will do the true, honest, ethical thing.” So, it shows us how much we’re influenced by tribalism. And so much of this is very, very applicable to culture within organizations.

So, whenever you see people within an organization cheating, it’s because this culture induces cheating. Whereas, if you see people in an organization being honest, it’s all about the culture causing honesty. We’re very much influenced by our culture and the people around us much more than we tend to believe we are.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Gleb Tsipursky
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. This is the seminal book on cognitive biases. I really like it. It’s part of that older generation of scholars. Daniel Kahneman is part of the first generation of scholars on cognitive biases. I really like his work and I think it’s incredibly important as a foundational base for all future work that was done on this topic.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you recommend a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Gleb Tsipursky
Well, what I have found is that I really like flexible tools, and the flexibility of Trello as an organizational tool. I’m not being paid by Trello, I’m not an affiliate of Trello in any way. But Trello is a system of essentially Kanban board where it uses a combination of index cards, cards that you move around from different columns. So, I use it all the time for my organization and for various projects that I do because it’s very flexible and that’s kind of pretty intuitive for me to use, kind of index cards. So, that’s my favorite tool.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit, something that you do that helps you be awesome at your job?

Gleb Tsipursky
My favorite habit that’s really important is, as part of my routine, I always do journaling in the morning about what I learned from the last day and what I’m grateful for and a couple of other things. But that’s the essence of the journaling, kind of what I’ve learned and what I’m grateful for. So, the first one, what I’ve learned, helps me keep a constant habit of self-improvement throughout my life.

The gratitude, what I’m grateful for, helps improve my mood. And we tend to greatly underestimate the importance of mood. So, the research on this topic shows that we are about 80% to 90% driven by our emotions. Again, 80% to 90% driven by our emotions to do what we do, to make the decisions that we make. So, I make sure to take care of my emotions, and that’s one of the ways I take care of my emotions, by having a gratitude diary.

Pete Mockaitis
And, tell me, is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, they quote it back to you often?

Gleb Tsipursky
Well, I’ll tell you, something I mentioned in the presentation, in the podcast earlier, is that you want to avoid, avoid, avoid equating the feeling of comfort with trueness. So, avoid. Comfort is not true. So, whatever you feel is comfortable and intuitive is often going to be the worst thing for you to do, so you want to very much question that feeling of comfort and intuitiveness even if it feels right, even though it feels right. That’s exactly that time when you need to most question it in order to make the best decisions going forward.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Gleb Tsipursky
Well, they can check out my book Never Go With Your Gut. They can check out my website DisasterAvoidanceExperts.com for blog, videos, podcasts, and so on. And they can check me out on LinkedIn, connect with me there please. That’s Dr. Gleb Tsipursky on LinkedIn. And if you have any questions about anything you heard today, I welcome you to contact me by email at gleb@disasteravoidanceexperts.com.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Gleb Tsipursky
I want you to remember to be aware of going with your gut. Going with your gut is a very common piece of advice. It’s probably one of the most common pieces of advice, and I want to challenge you to question this piece of advice. It’s very dangerous to just go with your gut. It causes you to run to serious career disasters, serious business disasters, and you don’t want that to happen to you like it happens to so many people.

Don’t trust your gut. That’s one thing. And the other part of this that I’ve also talked about is “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Don’t trust that. Our plans tend to not survive contact with the enemy and you want to make sure to think that failing to plan for problems is planning to fail. So, those are the challenges that I want to give folks.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Gleb, it’s been lots of fun. I wish you much luck and fun in all your upcoming decisions.

Gleb Tsipursky
Thank you so much, Pete. And I wish you the same and thank you so much for helping people be awesome at their jobs.

514: How to Make More Winning Decisions with Alec Torelli

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Alec Torelli says: "I care only about what I can control."Professional poker player Alec Torelli shares his tips for making wise decisions during high-stakes situations.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to keep emotions from overtaking logic
  2. When to go with your gut
  3. How to better read people and situations

About Alec

Alec Torelli is a professional high stakes poker player turned digital entrepreneur and keynote speaker, who shares how the lessons he learned from poker can be applied to life and business.

Alec is the founder of Conscious Poker, a popular poker training platform, and after spending the last 14 years making decisions for hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single hand, he now gives talks in which he dissects the anatomy of decision making to help others hone the way they make choices.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

Alec Torelli Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Alec, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Alec Torelli
Pete, I love what you’re doing and flattered to be here. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Well, I’m excited to really dig into some of your wisdom associated with decision-making and keeping your cool and all that good stuff. But, for starters, maybe you could regale us with an exciting tale from the land of professional poker.

Alec Torelli
A specific story or…?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, just like the most riveting, like, “Whoa! That’s awesome.” No pressure, Alec.

Alec Torelli
That’s fine. So, I’ve been playing for 15 years. It’s interesting to pick out one thing that comes to mind. I guess, for me, personally, I think the coolest story, the first one that comes to mind, so I was 22 years old at the time. This is about a decade ago. And it was a Wednesday night, I was at my apartment in Las Vegas, and it was 7:00, 8:00 p.m., kind of like nothing going on. And I was like, “You know what, I’m going to just head over to Bellagio and see what’s going on and play whatever poker game is running.” Clearly, like a Wednesday night, not expecting anything to happen.

Go down with some money. Show up and there’s a game running with a $2,000 buy-in, so it’s 10, 20 or the blinds, or the forced antes. It’s a pretty normal-sized poker game, nothing out of the ordinary. So, I show up and I have, I don’t know, I bring $10,000 or $20,000 to the table, which is allowing myself a few buy-ins to the game, not knowing what to expect.

Playing for a couple of hours and the foreman comes over to me and says, “Hey, Alec, I know you sometimes play higher-stakes games, and there are three businessmen that showed up with Doyle Brunson…” who’s like the godfather of poker, “…and they’re looking for more people to play to start a poker game. They don’t want to just start with four people. Do you, or does anybody in this game, want to play?”

So, I’m like, “Sure, Matt, I would love to play,” but, of course, I completely know it’s a Wednesday night, I was completely unprepared. I’m sitting here with a small amount. They’re playing some very high-stakes poker game, and I don’t have money on me and I’m not even sure I can afford to play this game. I have no idea. They might be playing for $100,000 to buy into the game.

So, I walked over to Bobby’s room, and he says, “Well, just go talk to Doyle, and he’s looking to play.” So, I walk in and, of course, Doyle is my idol. I read his books growing up, I watched him on TV.

So, I walked into Bobby’s room and I’m like, “You know, Matt said that there was a game. I’d love to play. I’m not sure that I have the money or what size game you are playing.” And Doyle is like, “Well, the buy-in is 50,000.” I’m like, “Look, I only brought 20 with me and I was up a couple thousand. I have maybe half of that.” And Doyle looked at me, he has no idea who I am, he’s like, “You look like you know what you’re doing. How about I give you 25,000 and take half your action, and we start a poker game?” And I’m like, “Is this real? Like, am I in a movie?” So, I’m like, “Okay, sure.”

So, I sit down, by this time it’s like 8:00 or 9:00 or 10:00 at night. I don’t remember exactly, and now the VIPs, the businessmen, they’re like ordering these crazy bottles of wine, they’re ordering all these food and oysters. So, we’re drinking wine, I’m sitting here talking to my childhood hero, we’re telling stories. I ended up winning, it’s crazy, you think I would remember, but I ended up winning a large amount in the game, I don’t remember how much, and Doyle kind of hit it off at that time. Clearly shared a unique experience.

And when he went to go start his poker site, Doyles Room, because of that interaction, I became the first sponsored pro of the site. And so, that was something that I’ll always remember, where preparation meets opportunity. I had a good session in the game, I won, I made a good impression, but I was just involved in a crazy serendipitous moment, and that was one of the highlights of my poker career.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so intrigued. So, Doyle said, “You seem like you know what you’re doing.” And I wonder, did he recognize you? Did he have prior information? I’m just sort of wondering what kind of triggers that reaction or response?

Alec Torelli
Well, if you’re in your early 20s and you’re in the Bellagio at 9:00 p.m. on a Wednesday with 20 grand, you probably know what you’re doing. Like, you’re probably a professional poker player. Like, there’s not many things that you could be doing. And so, it was he didn’t know who I was, for sure, but you could kind of identify if someone is good or not based on how they look and come across. Like, you could pick out, if you just look at a table and you’ve never seen anyone, you could typically tell if someone is very confident, or if they’re a professional, or if they’re likely to be an amateur, or if they’re a very experienced player.

And I think he just kind of gathered that I was probably a professional poker player. There was a lot of young guns playing professional poker at the time, and so he figured I’m probably going to be a big favorite in the game given that the other three people were not professionals, let’s just say, the least, and so it was going to be a profitable investment. And, also, frankly, I think the game wasn’t going to start unless there was more than the four of them sitting there, and so part of it is just being aware of what’s going to kickstart the action. And you can’t make money if there’s no game, so he’s like, “Look, I got to do what I got to do.”

Doyle has been around the block a few times, so it was just being at the right place at the right time. And then I think having the image of, “Look, I clearly know what I’m doing.” Actually, it’s one of the few times that it helps you. I think poker players, most people don’t want to play with professionals because they don’t want to be in a game where they’re going to lose. But, in this case, Doyle actually valued that I was a professional and he figured, “Hey, look, if this professional is going to sit in my game and be a favorite to win and make money, I might as well get a piece of the action.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, well, that adds up. Makes sense. So, I love that the story is so meta there because we’re talking about opportunities and decision-making, and then even another poker player’s decision-making that made a lot of sense once you unpack it a bit. So, we’ve interviewed Annie Duke previously, another professional poker player.

Alec Torelli
Yes, that’s how I found you there. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And that was one of my faves, so we’re going to – I’m sure there’s a poker term – double up. Thank you.

Alec Torelli
Double down, yeah. Double down, that’s more of a blackjack term. But she’s awesome. I like Annie a lot and she has a great book for those that are out there thinking in bets. Highly recommend it on my shortlist. So, yeah, she’s great.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so then let’s dig into it now. In your view, what do you think are some of the key principles of smart poker playing that are absolutely applicable to professionals looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Alec Torelli
Oh, man, there’s so many. One of them is decision-making, in general, and just being able to objectively make decisions without emotion, and using a combination of logic and intuition to make good decisions and not make emotional ones. I think another one is separating the facts from the noise and focus on the merit of making good decisions and not being preoccupied by the outcome.

And not basing the quality of your decision based on the outcome but based on the expectation that the decision will produce that outcome in the long term, and understanding that in the short term, or in an N1 sample, meaning a sample size of one, there is variance, meaning there is volatility there. There’s non-zero probability that you’re going to have a different outcome because there’s luck. So, it’s being able to step back from the results of the decision you make and evaluate the process of the decision. And that’s really what you’re after in poker.

And then I think another one is what poker players call bankroll management, which is shorthand for being able to manage your money in a way that allows you to properly evaluate your risks so that you can reach the long term and that luck is not the deciding factor in your success. And casinos do this as well where they have betting limits per hand so that they manage their risks so that no one hand of Blackjack, Roulette, Craps, whatever, can sort of break the house. And they know that in the long run, the odds are in their favor but they’re mitigating their risks along the way so that no one hand is significant and they can reach that long term.

Poker players practice the same thing using bankroll management to ensure that no one hand, or one session, or one tournament is significant in the grand scheme of things. So, these are, I think, three of the core principles that poker has taught me. And maybe self-awareness is another one, to look at things objectively, and try and screen for your cognitive biases as well. So, those are some of the big ones.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, yeah, there’s a lot that we can dig into.

Alec Torelli
Yeah, a lot to unpack there, I know.

Pete Mockaitis
So, let’s talk about emotions. Now, you know, we have them, they’re there. So, I would love it if you could sort of, first, lay out, in terms of, “Hey, when you’re experiencing these kinds of emotions, you tend to make these sorts of mistakes in logic.” For example, I believe I’ve heard and experienced in my life that if you’re feeling stressed, rushed, too busy, we tend to prioritize the short-term immediate relief, whether that’s undisciplined eating pizza or just like hurry, “Just get it done. I don’t care what it costs. You know, fine,” and we overspend on getting some help because we’re really desperate and we need it. So, I think that’s one connection between emotions and suboptimal decisions that tends to pop up. What are some others and what do we do about that?

Alec Torelli
Yeah, I think if you look at the types of decisions you can make fundamentally, I typically break them down into three categories. So, logic or analytical, and this is well-thought out, pros and cons, analytical-type of decision-making. Then there’s intuitive decisions, which is trusting your read, or feeling, or gut instinct. And this sometimes gets confused with the third type of decisions, which are emotional, and those are the worst decisions we make, right? Impulsive, frivolous, frantic types of decisions.

So, I think, in poker, the challenge is to eliminate the emotional decisions and work with the other two. At the poker table, this is called tilt, meaning you make decisions when you’re in a state of mind that is suboptimal and you’re frustrated by the previous results, or lack thereof, and you’re trying to compensate for that or make overly-aggressive plays to win money in a short period of time. And this causes people to play poor hands, make bad decisions, bluff at the wrong times, chase when the odds are not in their favor, and, ultimately, in the long run, lose lots and lots of money. This is the ruin of many players.

So, otherwise, good players sometimes can’t win in the long term because they can’t manage their emotions. So, your talent is only one part of it. It’s being able to execute consistently that is another part. And so, poker really is extremely punishing if you’re not, I would say, great or excellent at this because it’s unforgiving in the sense that, unlike the real world, you don’t have a lot of time to come back to calm yourself down or to step back from an emotional state of mind and make a rational decision later on.

So, for example, if you get a completely unwelcoming email or something like that, you can emotionally be charged but you could decide not to respond to that in real time, right? You can make a rational decision later. But at the poker table, every hand is dealt consecutively, like it’s a continuum, so if you’re not able to shift from an emotional charge from the last hand, to completely present, logical state of mind in the current hand, you’re just going to get killed. So, it really is unforgiving in that way.

But I think one thing that’s helped me do that is to try and have a process that I go through every hand of poker I play, kind of like a tennis player does in a sporting match. So, if you watch them play from one point to another, they might be like really charged up after winning a point, or they might be really frustrated after hitting an easy volley into the net, and they might be pissed or slam their racket. But the next points, inevitably, they come back to the line and they have this little meditation process they go through to get them ready for the next point, mentally, to serve the ball and play optimal tennis.

And so, I’ve tried to apply that same philosophy to my life in poker, and it’s through exercising that muscle that I’ve been able to translate that over into the real world as well. And I’m happy to share some concrete ways I do that, too, if that sounds interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, please. Now, this tennis, in particular, sounds familiar. Was there a book, The Inner Game of Tennis that discussed this matter?

Alec Torelli
Great book.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s ringing a bell. I don’t think I read it. Maybe I read the Blinkist summary.

Alec Torelli
Yeah. Either way it’s a great book.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. Understood. Timothy Gallwey, 1997, okay. And I recall from that book or something that that was a key differentiator between championship players and not-so championship players, was the ability to do exactly that. So, let’s hear, hey, in practice, if we want to do a quick reset when necessary, say, “Okay, I’m flustered. I got some feedback which I thought outrageous and unfair,” or, “I feel offended, slighted, dissed, or just anxious, tired, unmotivated, don’t feel like it,” you know, there’s some emotion that’s there, and we can sort of deal with it, process it, think about it, work on it at some point, but, for right now, we got to reset and take care of business. How does one do that?

Alec Torelli
Yeah, and I think you find this in personal life as well. You mentioned just like unmotivated being one of them, like just letting emotion come into your decision-making process in the morning. For example, just like deciding you don’t want to exercise because you’re unmotivated. So, I think this plays out in a lot of facets of life.

I’ll kind of walk you through my process a little bit and then also go through how I have used that to navigate the real world, so bear with me here for a sec. In poker, it’s a little bit different because you’re trying to…you’re just like in a performance state so it’s a little bit more contrived in the sense that, right away, I’m just trying to be like, “Okay, I only have 30 seconds between one hand and another. I have to reset right away.”

So, the first thing I do is just sort of, as cliché as it sounds, just take a deep breath, right? So, when you focus on your breath, or you breathe, you automatically release stress, so that’s just like the first thing to do, and I think it’s just training that muscle that helps you just automatically respond in that way. And then I really am trying to release the charge of the previous hand and focus my process on what I can control.

So, a lot of times when we’re in an emotional state of mind, especially in poker, there’s a lot that’s outside your control. Like, you can’t control what cards you’re dealt, only how you play the hand. So, trying to bring the focus back to what I can control to feel empowered to make a good decision, so I say to myself, I’ll tell myself something positive, I’ll repeat something to myself, a command to myself as I close my eyes for a second, take a deep breath, and I’ll say to myself, “I’m present and focused at the poker table. I care only about what I can control. My goal is to play this next hand the best way possible.”

And so, now I just bring the focus back to something that’s very simple. And, instead of looking outward 100 miles into the future trying to imagine like all these futures that I can’t play for, I’m just looking at, “What is the very next step that I can take? Like, where is my foot going right now?” And where it’s going right now, the only thing that I can really focus on, the only thing I can control, actually, the only thing that exists or matters is the next hand, the current hand, that’s going to be dealt. And if I want to win back the $50,000, $100,000 I just lost in the hand before maybe because I made a mistake, maybe because I got unlucky, the only way I could do it is through this very current next hand.

And I think that mindset really helps and take that mindset with you to the real world as well. Like, maybe there’s this seemingly insurmountable mountain, like you lose your job, or you’re fired, like, “How am I ever going to come back from this relationship I just ended?” or whatever it is. But the only way forward is what you could do this current moment, this next day. And so, instead of focusing on…I mean, it’s good to be prepared like for long-term planning, but just being able to focus on something that you could do tangible right now to kind of bring back your sense of control to the situation and feel empowered, like the action you’re taking matters, really helps setup that domino effect of getting motivated again to make good decisions.

And then, I think when it comes to everyday action, it’s about separating myself from my emotions. So, I talked before about emotional, logical, and intuitive decisions. So, when you’re navigating, I think, your daily life, it’s really important to focus on making logical decisions and not emotional ones. And emotion is something that speaks very loudly in your mind at any current time, like you’re lazy, you’re tired, you don’t feel like exercising, you’re craving something you want to eat, a piece of cake, you’re kind of like, “Oh, I don’t feel like working. I want to watch Netflix.” If you listen to the emotions, it’s easy to get swept away in this current and not ultimately do what’s best for you.

So, what I’d like to do is I like to treat myself like I’m a parent managing a child, and that I’m talking to myself in the third person. So, I’m creating space between my emotions, or my ego, and what I know is my higher self, or what is best for me, and I talk to myself in the third person, and I say, “What should Alec do? Or, Alec, what is the best decision that you can make right now?” And so, I get up in the morning and I don’t feel like exercising, or maybe I need a day off, so it’s not about asking yourself these questions to push yourself to always do the hardest thing. Sometimes the correct answer is taking a day off or eating a piece of pizza because that’s the right thing to do because you need that balance, and that’s fine.

But I’m always trying to focus on the quality of making the right decisions. So, I’ll say, “Alec, what should you do right now? Or, what should you do tomorrow?” As I’m mapping out my day the night before, I’ll say, “What should you do?” And then I’ll write out the things that I know that I need to do that I should do, not the things that I might emotionally want to do in the moment.

And so, this is something that I can come back in real time as I’m making decisions. I was doing this today, for example. I had the choice between spending a couple more hours working on this book I’m writing, or coming home and doing something else. And so, I was kind of confused and I felt emotionally connected to one thing, but I asked myself, “Alec, what should you do right now?” And I realized staying in the library and focusing on writing was more important even though I didn’t really want to do that emotionally. So, I think that really helps to create space and helps me to navigate decisions in a better way.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. So, third person, like a parent to a child.

Alec Torelli
Yeah, you have to do it because sometimes you’re just, at least for me, like so susceptible to, like, “Today I feel unmotivated, or today I feel like doing this, or I don’t feel like doing that, or whatever.” But at the end of the day, you know you’re going to feel better if you do the things that you know, logically, you should do that matter, right? So, I know that if I go through the motions of meditating in the morning, and doing my HIIT Cardio, and taking a cold shower, like having a healthy breakfast. I know in two hours I’m going to feel great, but emotionally, right then before I do all that, I’m looking at these tasks that are on my lists, and I’m like, “I don’t want to do any of that.” But if I listen to emotion, at the end of the day I’m going to feel worse. But if I listen to logic, I’m going to feel worse in the short term. But it’s about optimizing for what I think is the best long-term process so that’s part of the reason why I think that’s important.


Pete Mockaitis
And the question is, “What should you do?” I imagine there’s a number of ways you could articulate that but that’s how you do it, it’s like, “What should you do?”

Alec Torelli
Yeah, or, “What is the best decision?”

Pete Mockaitis
“What is the best decision? What should you do?”

Alec Torelli
Yeah, “What should you do right now?” Like, “What is the best decision?” And sometimes I just close my eyes and I’d pose that question to my subconscious. Like, I’ll just sit on the couch and pose it, and then I’ll think about it for a minute, and I’ll let the answer sort of come to me. I’ll listen for the answer in a way that’s like a little bit more intuitive or maybe it’s something that requires a little bit more thought. I’ll write down some ideas. I’ll just write like a stream of consciousness and write for 30 seconds or a minute.

And usually it’s pretty easy to come to the right answer and you can usually separate out, “I don’t feel like doing this but I know this is what I should do,” type of logic that you can get down on paper, or sometimes you can do it meditatively, or whatever. And I feel like that helps come to that conclusion. But I think it’s about priming yourself for those questions is a good place to start.

And if you’re really honest with yourself, and you listen, I think most of the time you’ll know what the right answer is.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think the “What should you do?” I guess that’s almost like a shorthand, or, “What’s the best decision?” It’s sort of like it’s based on something in terms of like there are embedded criteria, whether it’s your life’s purpose or mission or vision or values or kind of long-term goals that matter to you a whole lot. It’s sort of because that’s the first thing that my mind fires back. It’s like, “Based on what? Under what criteria? Toward what end?” And so, I guess, there’s some pre-work there associated with having some clarity on that such that your current moment decisions are in congruence with that.

Alec Torelli
Yeah. So, in poker, before you make any bets, I always tell my clients to think about what you’re trying to accomplish before you make a bet. So, sometimes, people are like, “Oh, I bet because the other guy checked,” or, “I bet because the action was on me.” But it’s like, “Why are you trying to bet? What are you trying to accomplish?” And I think in the same vein, that sort of applies to life as well, and I call this having my North Star. And that’s really trying to identify, like, “What are the core values in your life that you’re trying to optimize for?” So, like, “What are the important things that the rest of the decisions that you’re making are helping you maximize?”

So, for example, for me, I try and maximize my decisions around the values of freedom, excitement, and choices. And so, I think freedom is like the main one that I’m trying to optimize for, and so I think money is a great tool and it helps, but it helps in terms of achieving more freedom units. So, a lot of times, I’ll perhaps find an opportunity or a situation where I’ll be passing up something that is potentially monetarily rewarding because it lowers my freedom. Like, it’s a big, huge commitment either to an activity or a time or a location or I’d have to be somewhere at a certain time, and like even though that could present a monetary reward, it could lower my freedom. But by understanding your priorities, it helps to maximize your aim.

So, for example, that’s like on the macro, right? Those are like the big decisions that you make structurally in the scope of your life, like what job you’re going to take, or where you’re going to live, or how much you want to have, how much you want your mortgage to be, might affect your ability to travel, which might affect your freedom, like those are some things. But I think, on a micro level, it also is important as well to have your other short-term goals, or maybe your lesser goals.

So, for example, when you go to a restaurant and you say, “What should I order?” If you’re in a period of your life where your macro goal is to lose 10 pounds, well, that might be the way that you decide to optimize those decisions. And so, you might decide to make an ordering decision based on that objective. So, I think it’s about understanding the big picture and then reverse-engineering to make sure the decisions you make are mapped towards your ambitions.

And then, also, being aware that success is not a linear path. It’s not a straight line to your goal. It’s like a curved line where there’s setbacks and ups and downs. So, the idea of trying to lose 10 pounds might mean eating healthy five or six days a week and a couple of times having a pizza even though it’s not, in a vacuum, the best decision to reach your goal of losing 10 pounds, but it’s also about being aware that, “Hey, I’m out with friends on a Friday night, and everybody is having a glass of wine, and we’re enjoying a nice restaurant. Like, I’m going to be okay with not necessarily going the most expedited route to my goals because it’s part of life as well.”

So, it’s about being able to be intuitive in those moments and being, what I call, situationally aware, which is a concept we use often in poker. There’s typically rules that you follow, where like these hands are the correct hands to play in certain situations, but there’s always circumstances where the rules are broken, and I think it’s important to be aware of where those apply in your life as well.

Pete Mockaitis
I also want to get your take on intuition. To what extent should we trust it? How should we use it? And how do you think about it?

Alec Torelli
I think about intuition as the first part of the decision-making process. And so, for example, when I play a hand of poker, I’m typically looking for intuitive read about the situation. And this is something that’s hard to quantify. It doesn’t come from my logical mind. It just comes as a feeling right away. And this happens in real life, too, like when you meet someone for the first time, it’s hard to logically express whether you like them or why. So, you’re not going to say something like, “Oh, well, I like him, or I’m attracted to him, because of his black shirt.” It’s just about their aura, their essence, their personality, the vibe you get. These are all sort of intuitive things. And this is like the first part of the decision-making process. It’s primal. Instinctual.

And then after that, you use logic or reason to confirm your hypothesis, so you might get to know the person better. You might understand their values and see if their priorities or North Star align with yours, and then you might be able to confirm with now your intuitive read. And this is also what I’m doing at the poker table, right? Like, if I have an intuition that my opponent is bluffing, then I’ll analyze their betting patterns and I’ll work my way through the hand to see if their betting patterns confirm this idea that it’s likely that they are bluffing. And, in fact, when my intuition and logic are pointing to the same conclusion, that’s when I feel like I make my best decisions, when both of those things are in harmony. It’s like a marriage of both of those things to make a good decision.

But, lastly, on that subject, I typically find that I don’t always have intuitive reads. I don’t want to overemphasize making intuitive decisions or that you should be like just sort of meditating your way to make a decision in every facet of your life, because most of the time I don’t have intuitive reads. Like, I‘m watching my opponents, I’m looking for betting patterns, or what we call tells, meaning physical actions that allow someone to deduce the strength of your opponent’s hand. But I don’t get that read every hand, right? So, most of the time, I’m making logical decisions, I’m analyzing pros and cons, I’m weighing probabilities, I’m using logic and math and those sorts of things to make my decisions probably 90% of the time.

But the 10% of the time where I do have a strong instinctual read about a situation, a person, a business deal, a relationship, it’s typically right. And it’s the situations in which I override my intuition with logic that I end up paying the price. So, for example, at the poker table, when I really get the gut feeling that my opponent has a very strong hand, I know the right decision is to fold, but I can’t quite explain why logically. And then I start letting my conscious mind override my intuition and talk myself into calling because I try and use logic to kind of like override my intuition. I say, “Well, I can’t fold here because of this,” or, blah, blah, blah. And then I call, and he usually has it.

And I feel like this is true in life as well. Like, when you have a strong feeling, like, “This guy is bad news,” or, “I can’t trust this person,” or, “I shouldn’t go into business with him,” or, “I can’t take on this project,” or, “This job isn’t right for me,” or, “Something about this isn’t right.” That is usually something to listen to, and I feel like it’s the situations where you kind of try to override that by talking yourself into something that you intuitively know is wrong that we end up paying the price. So, that’s a little bit about my relationship with those things and decision-making on and off the felt.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when it comes to, you mentioned the tells, I’m intrigued. Let’s talk for a bit about reading people. To what extent can it be done? Are there any kind of telltale signs that you think are pretty reliable?

Alec Torelli
In poker, yeah. But, unfortunately, they don’t necessarily directly apply to decisions off the felt. So, for example, in poker, a common tell is your opponent’s hands are shaking when they’re betting.

Pete Mockaitis
Because they have happy feet.

Alec Torelli
Yeah, or that’s indicative of a strong hand. That’s a release of tension. They usually have a very good hand. Inversely, when they call a bet very quickly, they act extremely fast, they usually have a weak hand. They’re trying to intimidate you by acting quickly, by saying or conveying the message that, “Hey, look, I’m going to call you right away. I have something,” when, in fact, they don’t.

But, typically, like that specific, those specific actions don’t quite translate to the real world. It’s not like if someone shakes their hand, their hands shake, they’re lying to you or something. This doesn’t work like that. But what I will say is that being forced to interpret body language or basically infer people’s true intentions without words has helped me off the felt as well. And I think it’s a good skillset to practice because, in poker, you’re basically communicating with people that don’t speak your language. It’s sort of like doing that because people aren’t really talking to you.

And even if they are, the words, you can’t trust that the words they’re saying are indicative of their hand strength obviously, right? They’re not obliged to say, “Hey, I have a good hand,” when they have a good hand. Nobody is going to do that. So, you can’t really listen, I mean, you can listen but you can’t really trust that what they’re saying or the information they’re conveying. You have to read into it. And I think that’s a good skillset as well to help get to truths within relationships, avoid potentially problematic situations when you’re able to read people or situations a little bit better because people aren’t always conveying things accurately, sometimes for malicious reasons, other times just for protection. They don’t want to say something to offend you, or to get involved in a hard conversation, or it’s tough for people to express their true feelings. So, being able to read people is like a muscle, I think, that you could exercise, and poker helps you do that.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, with the exercising of it, what are the activities or practices that one does to exercise it?

Alec Torelli
So, there’s not like a specific body language thing that I think correlates, but I think it’s just about being more present and aware of the subtleties when talking to someone and really trying to infer if what they’re saying is representative of how they’re actually feeling and kind of like just being aware of this process, and then looking back on it and analyzing it. I don’t have a great practice for doing this in person, but I think, yeah, in so far that you can try, I think it’s a useful practice to do. I wish I had more, a little bit more of a tangible thing here to do for someone looking to do that off the felt.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it sounds like simply observing and making a note to asking yourself internally, “Is there a congruence and consistency here between what they’re saying verbally and what I’m picking up elsewhere?” and then just sort of make a note of that and look at it later can be handy as opposed to just sort of letting it flow right by in terms of you’re not even kind of paying attention to those non-verbals in the first place.

Alec Torelli
Yeah, and like just kind of starting to observe for and just being conscious of it and then watching for reactions. I mean, your intuitions are usually right. You can tell if someone is giving you a false compliment or if someone genuinely is interested in something you’re saying, right? Like, you were doing this all the time whether we’re aware of it or not, right? Like, if you are talking to someone and their eyes are wandering and they’re looking disinterested. It’s hard to quantify exactly what the tells are for that non being interested in what you’re saying, but you can typically tell if you’re boring someone during your conversation, and then you might change the subject. But you might just do this subconsciously without even thinking about it.

But I think going into the conversation conscious of it and saying, “Okay, what was it that made me realize that that person wasn’t interested in what I was saying? And why did I just change my subject of conversation there? Or, I could tell that person wanted to say something. Why was that? And why did I pause and let him talk?” or whatever it is. So, I think just going into it with a sense of curiosity, I would say, is probably the best word, allows you to kind of explore this a little bit more. And I think people will find that it’s a fun game to play and it’s also quite a useful skill.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now, tell me, Alec, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Alec Torelli
No, this is awesome. This is great.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cool. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Alec Torelli
“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. And small minds discuss people.” I think that’s a great quote.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cool. And how about a favorite book?

Alec Torelli
I think a book that had a big impact on my life, I guess you have to be at the right place for it, is Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar. He’s a professor at Harvard, and I think it’s in Economics, something unrelated completely to this subject. And he taught a course on happiness and it became the most popular course at Harvard, and then he wrote a book about his findings.

He has a subsequent book called Perfect as well about how perfectionism is an unattainable thing that it’s a quest that leads people to be unhappy. But Happier was really good. And I actually went through it and there’s these exercises in the book, and I was at a point where I was in the mood to kind of like do them and be tangible with it. And I found that was a great book.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cool. And, tell me, how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Alec Torelli
Like, what’s an example?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, some people would say the Trello app is amazing.

Alec Torelli
Trello, I was going to say that. That was the first thing that came to my mind.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, how about that? There’s my intuition, Alec.

Alec Torelli
Okay. Good job. Well, that’s crazy.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, Trello it is.

Alec Torelli
Yes. So, I would say Trello as a good tool, but since I feel like other people might’ve already said that, I will say SaneBox to filter email on Gmail is incredible. So, it allows you to put email in a lot of different folders depending on who sends it, and set reminders, messages go to your inbox at different times. It’s incredible. It completely organizes your email. And one more, I would say, would be some sort of meditation app. And I like Waking Up by Sam Harris, and I think that’s a great tool as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Alec Torelli
I guess I’ve been more interested in meditation recently, and I think looking at some of the effects that it has on long-term meditators and how it changes certain aspects of the brain, and improves memory, and reduces stress, and makes people potentially live longer, I think that was pretty profound and insightful.

Pete Mockaitis
And have you found that to be your experience as you embark upon meditation?

Alec Torelli
So, okay, I’m nowhere near at some super advanced level. I’ve been doing it for four years and I would say the first-year average, like 10 minutes a day, and then 20 minutes a day, and then 30 minutes a day, so that’s kind of been where I’m at. But it’s one of those things that you really, I feel like, at least for me, have to get through this initiation phase. And I feel like a lot of people probably would be inclined to quit before that point.

And so, I think if it’s something that you’re going to start, it would be to commit to doing like at least 30 days to two months, and do like 20 minutes a day every single day. And then don’t start unless you can commit to that because it’s only then when you start to kind of realize, like, “Oh, there’s something here. I’m not just sitting and thinking randomly about nothing, or bored.” But I have noticed there is this sort of tipping point where things start to click, and then it becomes incredibly interesting and insightful and quite productive, profound, I think so. Yeah, I have noticed that. It took a while though.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I’m curious with the word productive there. If you think about all the minutes you’ve spent engaged in meditation as compared to the benefits it’s yielded, would you say that those minutes have paid for themselves? Or what kind of ROI have they delivered?

Alec Torelli
Good question. Yeah, I know it seems counterintuitive, and I thought this in the beginning as well, that typically people are short on time, “Of course, I don’t have time to meditate. I could be doing something more productive.” But I think what meditation really helps you with is focus. And to do anything great, you have to be really, really focused. And so, I think it helps me get clarity in a lot of things, and get re-energized, and really focused on what’s important.

And so, for example, let’s say I’m working all day, and it’s like 2:00 p.m. and I’m kind of tired, I can sit for 5 to 10 minutes, close my eyes and just meditate, and let my mind unwind, and all the thoughts of my day will kind of come out from my subconscious, to like I can kind of watch my thoughts go by. And sometimes in that moment, like letting my thoughts unwind, I will get great ideas. And ideas will come to me that I couldn’t think about during the course of my day because I was actively engaged in all these activities. So, then I’ll sometimes stop meditation and write them down, of course, on Trello, or otherwise, after, my mind will just kind of unwind, and the noise of my mind will unwind, and then I could sit down after that and focus for another two hours.

So, it’s actually like taking a half a step back to take four steps forward. Whereas, if I just try to plug along, at 2:00 o’clock I try to take a break and did something else during that break, even if that break was longer, like a 30-minute break or an hour break, but during that break the state of my mind was engaged still, even if it was not engaged necessarily like learning something, but even just like you’re talking to people or you’re doing activities, and your mind is wandering and thinking while you’re involved in the physical world and doing all these activities, I don’t feel like I rest as much. But if I take 10 minutes, like I’m just charged for another couple of hours. So, I feel like it’s this superpower almost if you get to a little bit of proficiency with it, where it’s just unlocks this potential that I have to be more focused in the activities that I’m doing. You also learn a lot about yourself.

Like, I think there’s a great video by Jay Shetty, who was a meditation monk at one point, and then he’s come back to the business world and is a speaker, that, “Meditation Made Me A Bad Person.” It’s kind of an interesting title because it really forces you to look at some aspects of yourself that you might not have been aware of before. At least for me, I’m realizing, like, “Wow, I typically have these thoughts, and I typically behave this way. Like, these are things that I’d like to change or improve. Or these are some my strengths, and I wasn’t aware of that.”

So, all these things help you be, help you win more in the long term, however you want to look at that, whether it’s productivity or focus or whatever it is. I think it’s a net positive when you add up the minutes and then you look at the increase in productivity. Or if you measure with another metric, like stress or happiness or gratitude or connectivity with other people, all those things are greatly advanced. So, yeah, it’s been awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Alec Torelli
Well, I do have a YouTube with there’s like 500 or 600 videos on poker and ideas and lessons from poker that apply to life and business as well. You can look up Conscious Poker, or just Alec Torelli, and you’ll find it. Otherwise, ConsciousPoker.com if you want to learn poker strategy and get better at the game. But if you are more interested in the lifestyle side of things, I keep a blog at AlecTorelli.com with more of my personal thoughts and content as well.

I’m also very active on social media @AlecTorelli, Instagram, Twitter. Come say hi and shoot me a DM or send me a message or leave me a comment. I do read them all. Let me know you found me on here, I’d love to see it.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Alec Torelli
Just to always try and work on yourself, even if that means looking at things that are sort of hard or uncomfortable or potentially receiving painful feedback from people that are close to you or loved ones, to reframe that as an opportunity for growth, to look at the feedback that’s coming, or potentially even the things that you label as negative as opportunities for growth and challenges to get better, whether that’s a setback, or a demotion, or getting fired, or breakup, or whatever it is.

Instead of looking at it like, “This happened to me,” but perhaps, “This happened for me. And how can I learn from this experience, or grow from this experience, or get better from this experience? And what could I have done differently?” And that’s one of the questions that I always ask myself in poker that’s really helped me off the felt. It’s like, even if I win a hand, or even if things go well, I’m always asking, like, “What could I have done differently? How could I have played this hand better? What decisions could I have made to led to a better result?”

And I think focusing on that process and really looking to improve in every hand you play is a good framework that I think will help on and off the felt. So, I hope that’s a good challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Alec, thanks so much for sharing the good word, and good luck to you.

Alec Torelli
Thank you, Pete. Appreciate it. Thanks for having me.